Last week, two news stories made interesting headlines. The first one involved the use of water cannons to disperse the peaceful demonstration of teachers gathered in front of the Sindh assembly demanding more worker’s rights. The teachers were beaten, huddled into police vehicles, and taken to police stations. The second was the revelation of organised cheating plaguing the examination system of Karachi University.

These incidents are random symptoms of an ailment afflicting Sindh’s education system, exposing the importance which the Pakistan People’s Party government accords to education, and the shallowness of it’s populist slogans.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, PPP’s young stalwart and the new champion of democratic Sindh, has declared war against the Taliban, stating that militants intend to drag the country to the stone age. Though Bilawal vows to fight extremists and their obsolete mindset, he has ignored his own backyard, which, with the lowest literacy rate, is still in the middle ages.

The alarming state of education and extent of illiteracy in Sindh is clear from the Annual Status of Education Report 2013, conducted by ASER Pakistan. The report evaluates the state of education in Pakistan, on a broad set of parameters, ranging from conditions of schools and student enrolment to the pupil performance in reading and arithmetic. The report declares that in rural Sindh, in the 6 - 16 year age bracket, around 30 percent of children are out of school. Only a quarter of grade three students can read Urdu, Sindhi or English, and only twenty four percent can do simple arithmetic.

Now compare this with the tribal areas, a place many of us believe is surrounded by the forces of chaos, and where extremists are blowing up schools, flogging women and killing school girls. In FATA, more than half of lower primary students can read and 45 percent have satisfactory arithmetic skills, a percentage much higher than the performance of pupils in Sindh. Even student and teacher attendance ratio in war-torn FATA is better than the PPP’s bastion of democracy.

Let’s put Sindh aside, and see how education is faring in Larkana and Benazirabad, the core constituencies of PPP’s top leadership. In Larkana, home of two former Prime Ministers of Pakistan, a staggering 80 percent of class five students cannot read properly, or do simple arithmetic. Benazirabad (formerly known as Nawabshah), is the same, and its most notable political luminary is PPP’s co-chairman, and former President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari.

Contrary to this, in Bajaur agency, more than 70 percent of the students can read texts in local languages, more than half can read English sentences and around sixty percent can do arithmetic. Similarly, in Orakzai agency, more than sixty percent of students can read and do arithmetic. On the educational scoreboard, some tribal agencies are doing better than many urban areas of Sindh such as Sukkur and Hyderabad.

American leader Malcolm X once said, “You and I have never seen democracy - all we’ve seen is hypocrisy.” This is true for us as well. Though our politicians sing the praises of democracy, many of us are still to savour its fruits. What we have witnessed, till now, is purely hypocrisy and Sindh is its biggest example. It is surprising how FATA, in the midst of militancy, civil commotion and an internally displaced population, is faring better in education than Sindh.

Pakistan People’s Party has always blamed establishment and non democratic forces for hijacking its mandate, but it is difficult to comprehend how establishment frustrated PPP’s attempted to improve education in Sindh. After remaining in power for five years, at the federal and provincial levels, and spending billions on education, literacy in the province has not improved.

Rulers have always known the immense power of education. Providing the right kind of education can liberate people. You give people the wrong kind of education and you get extremists and suicide bombers; if it is denied, we end up having more serfs and a large reservoir of cheap labour.

Perhaps, PPP knows it, and is well aware that an ignorant populace is essential for the long term survival of traditional politics. If people are educated and liberated, sooner or later they will challenge feudalism and the traditional elite that holds the reigns of power. An educated and conscious polity, would never have accepted a novice as the head of a political party, just because he was born to the right family.

Instead of mimicking ZAB on paid advertisements, spending millions on showcase cultural festivals, or fighting the war on terror on twitter, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari should pay more attention to the real problems of his province. Education reforms in Sindh will be a litmus test for Bilawal and his government, and will demonstrate if he can rise above traditional politics and turn the illusion of Super Sindh into reality.

 The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.

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