Six crore Pakistanis today are utterly illiterate. They cannot read a calendar, railway time-table or an airport display of arrivals and departures. Nor can they make out much of traffic signs and warnings, leave aside the ability to write a letter, fill a form or read newspaper headlines. Cana country make real or sustained progress if such large numbers, residing in it, remain handicapped and partially dysfunctional? It is another matter that they somehow manage to muddle though life.

In the world we live today, according to Unesco, the average literacy rate is 84%. Pakistan claims to have reached the figure of 58%. Two-thirds the illiterates are women. Imagine a country, in this day and age, where more than 4 crore mothers cannot read and write.

Pakistan officially solemnly and internationally committed itself in the year 2000 at the World Education Forum to reduce its illiteracy rate by 50% and achieve 86% literacy by the end of 2015. When this article appears in The Nation, only 279days willbe left to fulfill the pledge.

Pakistan actually spends less than 2% of its GDP on education. Not even 1% of it is allocated to the promotion of literacy. In Punjab which has a separate department for literacy and has to its credit a few literacy projects the number of illiterates is still, around 4 crores. More than a decade ago, we were regaled with such heart-warming slogans floated by the then government in the media as “Parha Likha Punjab”. Realistically we live in an “Unparh Pakistan”.

The literacy position in the other 3 provinces is much worse with hardly any sizeable programmes in Sindh and Balochistan. In Sindh, the allocations for literacy are mostly eaten up by corrupt and incompetent politicians and education department officials.

Why is literacy-wise Pakistan lagging so very much behind even most of the developing countries? An easy answer is the lack of political will. A major reason also is our poor-standard primary education.

On Thursday last, ITA held a workshop on various aspects of financial allocations for school education in the Punjab. Mention was made of a new Road Map with 18 indicators to measure progress of various programmes and initiatives and the utilization of hundreds of millions of pounds aid given by the British government.

It was good to learn that Punjab is spending 26% of its budget on education. Though it was also revealed that only a fraction of it was meant for development and quality improvement. The government representative present in the meeting admitted that the primary schools were not provided adequate funds and the attention necessary for their efficient working. While no reliable figures are available for the percentage and numbers of dropouts, estimates range from 18% to 45%. Hundreds of thousands of children enrolled in class I leave by the time they reach class III. Thousands of schools are still overcrowded and the number of classrooms is one or two only. During the meeting, it came to light that around 30,000 primary school teachers in Punjab government schools have not been imparted any training, before service or after.

Primary schooling is the foundation for further education in schools, colleges and the universities. It is in primary and pre-primary schools that children learn good or bad habits and critical thinking. It is at this stage that their minds are moulded. Of course parents do influence and contribute but it is the school where they pick up the basic skills of reading and writing, experience contacts with others and learn how to relate to their peers and seniors. It is at this level that knowledgeable and caring teachers are needed most. It is indeed tragic how our poor children-mostly malnourished and ill-clad—are treated and looked after by the teachers. And what indeed do these children learn? ASER and other monitoring reports reveal that a large number of students in these schools fail to learn the lessons imparted to them? The “learning achievement” can be gauged from the findings that a high percentage of 5th class students cannot read class III books nor can do sums meant for these classes.

Will all the high-sounding plans and road-maps, if foundational education at the primary level is so very insufficient for various reasons and actual learning falls far short of the prescribed course, shouldn’t our leaders, ministers and educationists, urgently focus on steps to bring about a real change?

We live in a fast moving world where only “knowledge societies” will make real progress. New technologies are rolling in at great speed; what evolved in centuries is now happening in decades.

A friend of mine was curious as to why I keep talking and writing about the urgency of expediting action for the promotion of literacy and education when much more formidable and pressing problems like terrorism and power shortages have to be addressed. I reminded him of what our Quaid said in 1947 in an address to the first national education conference: “Education is a matter of life and death for Pakistan”. I also referred to the British parliament discussing the new Education Act in 1944 when the country was being bombarded daily by Nazi war planes. In other words the future of the new generation was being planned at a time of crisis and peril.

More than a year ago, the Federal Minister for Education said in a conference in Islamabad that the government was thinking of declaring an “Education Emergency’ in the country. The other day Dr Hafeez Pasha, a former chairman of the Planning Commission and Finance Minister, wrote in a leading newspaper that the government should lose no time in declaring this emergency. Will the government heed this timely advice?

Will someone alert the Prime Minister to this government’s written commitment to achieve the Education For All Goals by end 2015, two of which relate to literacy and primary education? It seems Mr. Nawaz Sharif and the provincial chief ministers are blissfully unaware of their government’s solemn pledges to achieve the 2015 targets.