ON Pakistan’s dismal political stage, what is conspicuously missing is the quality of leadership that essentially determines the quality of governance and policymaking in a country.

Long periods of military dictatorship have, no doubt, interrupted the process of training political leaders who learn from their democratic experience. Moreover, the army has always called the shots even in times when it has stepped back and allowed the government to have a civilian face. The military’s presence in the wings has stunted the growth of democratic traditions.

Why can’t we have a training school for politicians to teach them the basic art of politics? Even if one were there, the emphasis would have to be on practical politics that can’t be taught in the classroom. There is no substitute for real-life experience. In this context, the concept of exposing children to the democratic processes by setting up representative institutions in the schoolroom has always appealed to many.

In an interesting move three years ago, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) launched the Children’s Parliament of Pakistan (CPP) with members elected from 30 districts. This has the potential of playing a significant role in providing training and education in political processes to young citizens at the grass-roots at a time when their worldview and mindset are being shaped. If Pakistan’s democracy does not receive an untimely blow by the time the children serving their term in the CPP today come of age, the quality of politics in this country might improve phenomenally.

That is how I felt after meeting Babar Ali, a teenager and student of Class X at the Korangi Academy, resident of Ali Goth and member of the Regional Assembly of Karachi and Hyderabad (a subsidiary of the CPP). I discovered Babar at the Korangi Academy’s annual day function which I had the privilege to attend. Babar presented to a large audience his documentary on the hazards of eating gutka. Production-wise the quality of the film was not anything extraordinary. But the ideas and approach were striking, as the message the producer intended to convey came out clearly.

Considering that Babar is a child from an impoverished background, the sensitivity displayed in the film was remarkable. Babar picked up his concern for the community from his school education and his participation in the assembly sessions held once a month. The debates, the advocacy work and drafting resolutions have sensitised Babar to the problems of the people and how they can be solved peacefully.

What are his biggest concerns? Education tops his agenda.

What policymakers must note is that Babar’s is not just a rhetorical plea for the state to provide compulsory and free education to all children born in Pakistan; that is now a common refrain. His is a sad commentary on the inequities that are rampant in the education sector and manifest themselves in the multiplicity of school systems that allows the high-fee elite institutions to coexist with the shoddy government schools.

The variety is expressed in their ownership, fee structure, language of instruction, quality of pedagogy, curricula and the examination system. Babar identifies some of the basic flaws — too much politics and excessive commercialisation in education. He explains, “The rich do not want the children of the poor to be educated. The poor will forge ahead and compete with their offspring thus threatening the monopoly of the elite.” Small wonder then that the delegation of the child parliamentarians who met Sharmila Faruqui, then adviser to Sindh’s chief minister, demanded the implementation of the 2001 ordinance that made school education compulsory and free. As a part of their advocacy training the delegation also called for improvement in the standard of the local school-leaving examinations with the aim of doing away with the prevailing diversity in the system.

Babar is highly disturbed by what he sees as the indifference of the policymakers drawn from the affluent classes towards issues that are a matter of life and death for him and his family. He lists them in this order: poverty and the absence of opportunities for most people to earn a decent livelihood, good education for all (only 20 per cent of the children complete their schooling) and drug addiction. He wants to enter politics to address these issues to find solutions.

One can expect him to perform better than our present leadership. The awareness has been created in him that education can empower people. His work in the Regional Assembly has taught him to prioritise issues, strategise and carry people along with him. It was, however, disappointing that Babar did not identify women’s rights as one of the issues he would like to address. But he picked it up on my prompting. That was not surprising. His insensitivity to gender equality can be traced to his social and family environment. In the goths that I visited after I spoke to Babar, I found the women were meted out the most dismal treatment — girls were sold for a pittance while women worked to support their families while men thrived on addiction.

One hopes that education and involvement in the CPP will sensitise Babar to gender equity. When Babar grows up and enters politics one can expect him to do better than the present lot ruling the country. He knows what it means to go hungry to bed and to yearn for the luxuries some children enjoy and that he has been denied. With education and training, he has already learnt that to succeed a politician has to ensure equity in economics and fair play in politics.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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