Back in August, my family visited Skardu — a little-known town surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world. My father planned this trip for years. He wanted us to see the hidden treasures of Pakistan, the places often overlooked; where the people are uniquely motivated, self-made, modest, generous and tolerant. The people of Skardu live amicably with the land; homes and roads are built around the mountains and industry doesn’t equate destruction. Cars are seldom seen, so it brings villagers great joy to spot one and give an obligatory wave, to which the driver responds with a honk.  Life is delightfully simple and while the people don’t have much, they aren’t poor; one would be hard pressed to find someone homeless on the streets.  

By complete chance, my much anticipated family vacation to Skardu coincided with President Mamnoon Hussain’s official trip to the Shangri-La Resort. As part of the Prime Minister’s Laptop Scheme, President Hussain arrived to deliver Haier laptops to exactly 30 “talented” Skardonian students. There were some bearable inconveniences for resort guests: swapping rooms with the President and his band for the most run-down cabins in the resort, taking ice-cold showers because all sources of hot water were reallocated to them, and eating our dinners outdoors in darkness because all restaurants were reserved for the President, his family, friends, advisors, and about 25 army and police personnel. It even became impossible to enjoy a simple walk within the stunning resort without unfriendly and sometimes combative, gun-toting army men following us around, barking orders to stay away. Main roads were shut down for days and drones loudly scanned the skies for potential threats. And though the staff received many complaints and admittedly unjustified shouts of frustration from travelers, they explained they had absolutely no control.  

The occasion was an extension of the Higher Education Commission’s efforts to “attempt to enhance the scope of research and quality education in the country and increase the access to information technology.” The HEC aims to distribute up to 100,000 laptops every year through 2019 to students between high school and graduate school.

President Hussain extended his stay at the Shangri-La resort by four days following the ceremony. Evidently, no pressing matters required his presence in the capital. According to an employee who spoke anonymously, all accommodations were provided without a single expense. He speculated that the owner of the resort would receive some sort of tax break in exchange for the hospitality. The group occupied about 10 rooms, priced at $300 per night for 5 nights. In essence, it costed more to host the President than to provide laptops, priced at about $320 each. Eventually, he left, and the residual excitement of his visit died down. Roads reopened and hot showers were taken.  

But does the Laptop Scheme hold to the promises made? Mobile devices and laptops are not necessarily a rarity in Pakistan. Remarkably, Pakistan ranks number 6 in the world for cell phone usage, but only about 18% of Pakistanis have access to the internet. So even though many citizens are texting and taking photos, only a tiny portion of the population is using cell phones to acquire information. What good is a laptop then without the prospect of internet access and the wealth of knowledge stored within it? Especially on the heels of a 3-year YouTube ban, Pakistan’s initiative appears both naive and neglectful of children and young adults who comprise a sizeable 53% of the country’s population. While elaborate laptop giveaways create good publicity, there must be something more permanent for the people of Skardu beyond 30 mediocre laptops presented in a self-congratulatory manner.  

Skardu happens to be one of Pakistan’s most literate districts. No, seriously. 74% of Skardonians can read and write in English and Urdu, compared to the abysmal 58% national average. These statistics beat all odds by every measure. Despite its location in one of the most remote regions in the world, despite the hundreds of feet of snowfall that put kids out of school for many months at a time and despite having some of the worst infrastructure in the nation, the people of Skardu have managed to cultivate the 14th best schools in the entire country! Not to mention, their stellar programs produce many of the highest-ranking army officials in Pakistan. Surely, Skardu’s contributions appear to outweigh what it receives in return, especially second-rate laptops without the likelihood of internet access. With Skardu’s education on the rise by its own miraculous volition, shouldn’t Pakistan be setting more tangible goals to address the institutions and infrastructures of education in and of themselves?

The success of these laptops remains to be seen. Now completing its third year, the Prime Minister’s Laptop Scheme hasn’t offered any sort of evaluation or update on the student recipients.  Have they learned essential computer skills? Has it advanced their careers? For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the program was allotted 17% of the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) budget. This was the second-highest allotment, given priority over the social sector and water development budgets. Most significantly, it shaved down an already measly Higher Education budget to 2.9%. Shouldn’t there be greater focus on long-term education goals rather than handing out laptops without guidance? Ali Raza, a 2016 recipient of the Prime Minister’s laptop explained, “above all it is free, so if something is free you are not allowed to complain for its specs and features.” In reality, these laptops can by no means supply crucial learning tools in any sustainable way on their own. Ali concluded, “I’ll use it for three or four months, and then I’ll give it to my little brother or cousin.” And when they’re not giving them away, at least hundreds of recipients are reselling their laptops online for profit.  

Although government press praised the program, the story on the ground in Skardu was told much differently. Locals appeared divided in their view of the visit. Many were happy Skardu was important enough to house the President while others expressed it was little more than a spectacle.  “Of course the President isn’t here just to deliver laptops. He’s here to show face; it’s a guise to remind the people of Baltistan that Pakistan is on their side,” one man explained. Most, however, conveyed a sincere desire to become a part of Pakistan — laptops or not. While the goals of the laptop initiative remain vague, some things are clear: Skardu is still a self-governing district within disputed territory that has yet to be adopted by Pakistan, and in the game of Kashmir, it’s winner takes all. Politically, Baltistan lingers in a sort of limbo; it is not fully independent nor is it officially a part of Pakistan. Despite requests for provincial status, it remains largely autonomous with the exception of federally imposed taxes. Just this year, Gilgit-Baltistan was denied provincial status by the President and Prime Minister’s party. Is it okay for Pakistan to maintain ambiguous policies both on the status of Kashmir and the programs it introduces, and simultaneously wield revenue and resources from these very places? Whilst neither Pakistan nor India have backed down from obtaining the whole prize, the people in Azad Kashmir continue to face frail “attempts” to improve their institutions. The laptop ceremony was no exception.  Presumably, Skardu was exactly the same before the visit: without the prospect of lasting change.