The Express Tribune Editorial 6 November

Ehsaas for Students

Developing human capital features prominently among the national goals of Prime Minister Imran Khan. And what else than a focus on education can better help in the context of human development! The Prime Minister has thus expanded his social safety and poverty alleviation programme, called Ehsaas, to include the education sector too. After Panah-gah and Langar Scheme, the Prime Minister has introduced ‘Ehsaas for Students’ that pledges to “ensure that no student is deprived of education just because of financial constraints”. Understandably, due to limited resources at the government’s disposal, the programme only caters to those pursuing university education, covering students’ tuition fee and providing them a stipend.
Under the ‘Ehsaas for Students’ – claimed by the Prime Minister to be the largest ever needs-based undergraduate scholarship programme – as many as 200,000 students from low-income families will be awarded scholarships over the next four years, which means 50,000 scholarships every year. To ensure gender equality and encourage women to be a part of the national workforce, half of the scholarships will be reserved for women. Besides, there is a two per cent quota for physically-challenged students, something that goes well in line with the letter and spirit of Ehsaas. The two quotas are in an indication of the government’s belief in inclusive policies for the development of the country, as rightly claimed by the PM in a tweet.
No statistics are available though, it can be safely claimed that there are lots and lots of students who have to give up further studies just for want of finances. And such unfortunate students include those having the capacity to go places. The government’s step for promoting financial access to education and giving deserving and talented students an opportunity to excel in life is commendable indeed. It does have a remarkable potential to bring notable change in society. But what the authorities concerned need to ensure is that there should be no comprise at all on merit otherwise the whole idea behind the scheme will be lost.

 

 

Callous indifference to safety

The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

One of the major indicators of how countries are judged is the importance they give to the safety and security of their citizens. Civilised and responsible governments and societies take appropriate measures to preserve the life of their citizens. By doing so they make certain that the people are not subjected to avoidable hazards and accidents. Governments, besides promulgating appropriate laws, ensure that all safety measures are functional and any breach in compliance is taken seriously and considered a cognisable offence.
The recent horrendous train accident in which over 75 precious lives were lost and hundreds seriously injured is a clear reflection of the gross neglect and inefficiency that prevails in our society in general and government organisations in particular. What is even more disturbing is the prevailing practice of government functionaries to cover these acts of criminal negligence by placing the blame on the other and deliberately distorting facts to create confusion instead of accepting responsibility. Several passengers who claim to attribute it to short-circuiting in the bogey dispute the government’s version of an exploding gas cylinder as the cause of the fire. This has become a part of our national ethos to pass the blame on the other. There is also a growing impression that as trains are mostly used by the lower middle and poor classes, the authorities accord low priority and interest in its functioning.
Accidents, unless they are a result of a natural calamity that is beyond human control, are generally a result of gross mismanagement and indifference towards the value of life of others. This is reflected in the slipshod maintenance of tracks, faulty signal systems and older engines. During General Musharraf’s period train engines were purchased from China and it turned out to be a highly controversial purchase as most of these were poorly reconditioned ones. Another pertinent reason for accidents is overcrowding. Not only does overcrowding result in straining the system but also in an emergency it becomes difficult for passengers to exit. And one of the contributing factors in the high causality figure was that the train was overloaded.
There is also a general level of inefficiency and mediocrity that has become a common feature of government departments. And that is reflected in the railway department in a magnified form in its every day functioning. During the present railway minister’s tenure since August 2018 until the end of June 2019, there have been 74 train accidents. This figure does not include the latest accident and many lesser ones since July 2019 to date. As statistics indicate, the previous record of accidents under the watch of different governments — civil and military — is only marginally better and in certain periods even worse. There is a general decadence on the issue of safety in both public and private enterprises. This should be no cause to swipe aside addressing the current sad state of the railways. In fact, the government should launch a serious campaign on not only developing awareness on safety measures in the country but also ensuring its compliance. This is also not a one-off measure. It should be a major aspect of governance. The current political crisis has clearly taken the focus away but it would be a huge dereliction of duty and negligence if attention towards corrective measures in the railways is set aside. Moreover, the enquiry to investigate the accident should not be departmental as has been ordered by the minister. It would be in the interest of the railways if this were conducted by an independent outside committee that includes experts as well as reputed former railway officers. Moreover, irrespective of whether the fire was first initiated by the stoves or due to electric short-circuiting, the railway authorities cannot absolve themselves of grave negligence.
In sharp contrast, countries are giving high priority to modernisation and safety of the railways. The Chinese railways have transformed into a technologically advanced, fast, safe and comfortable transportation system. India too has made reasonable progress in improving its train services although their record of accidents is fairly high.
The focus to improve train services indicates priorities of a government and how much the leaders care for the common people. It reflects the very ethos of the ruling class. The British were a colonial power but during their Raj the functioning of the railways was exemplary. There were two main reasons for this: first, the railways played an important role in maintaining the logistics during the World Wars; and second, they served the need of the people ably. I am a witness to its efficiency having travelled by train to several places in undivided India.
Regrettably, Pakistan has a history of fatal train accidents. To cite a few, on January 1990, as many as 350 people died in a train accident near Pannu Aqil in Sindh. In July 2006, apparently hundreds perished although the official toll showed 110. Furthermore, the government has to take effective measures to prevent corruption in the railways that generally covers a range of activities — procurement, civil work contracts, induction of personnel, and maintenance of tracks, etcetera.
The present situation reveals that Pakistan Railways has shown some improvement in its revenue generation and upgraded certain trains and bogies but major weaknesses exist. There are multiple reasons that are affecting its performance and safety adversely. Induction of personnel in various categories by successive governments has been less on grounds of professional competence and suitability but more on the basis of narrow political considerations. This indeed is akin to playing with the lives of the people.
Railways worldwide have undergone remarkable changes bringing in phenomenal improvement in speed, comfort and safety standards. Ours in sharp contrast has not much to show. Weakness in operation and maintenance, endemic corruption and low priority given by governments to the railways have affected performance and safety adversely. The railway track infrastructure and rolling stock need a major overhaul. The railway minister’s refurbishing a few bogeys and presenting it to the high-ups may be good public relations, but more concrete progress is needed. Only then would the public be convinced of the government’s sincerity.

 

 

Student unions

Students are the most active part of society. They are aware of issues affecting society. In Pakistan, this segment of society has been kept out of the democratic process for the past many years. This is having serious consequences for the society. So it is in the fitness of things that the Sindh Assembly has unanimously adopted a resolution asking for lifting the ban on student unions in the province. Moved by PPP MPA Nida Khuhro and supported by all opposition parties, the resolution demanded the revival of student unions as well as the maintenance of a healthy environment within the educational institutions of the province. The resolution empahasised the need for the youth of the province to actively and meaningfully participate in the democratic, social, cultural and political processes of the country and of the province.
Student unions were banned by the authoritarian regime of Gen Ziaul Haq in 1984 after it felt threatened by student power. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto decided to lift the ban, but her decision was challenged in the Supreme Court. Off and on, there have been demands for restoring student unions. One of the bad consequences of the continued ban on student unions is that it resulted in the undesirable growth of parochial politics on the campus. Universities are meant to promote enlightenment. But the ban on student unions only harmed the cause of enlightenment. Student unions serve as nurseries for leaders. But universities cannot serve this important purpose when they have a stifling environment due to the absence of student unions. Student unions help produce leaders of calibre. In the past, such leaders made proceedings in legislatures lively. They possessed both ability and wit. Our own Quaid-e-Azam was a great wit. When he joined the Muslim League, a reporter said to him, “Once you were in the Congress?” The Quaid retorted, “At one time I was in a primary school as well.” Now wit has become alien to the political culture.

 

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