Anti-Globalization Protests In Pakistan

Echoes of the world wide discontent with globalization are currently being heard in Pakistan. A widespread movement, sparked by the so-called reforms that the government of Pakistan has introduced in the health and education sectors ostensibly to improve the quality of both sectors, is increasing in momentum, disrupting governmental plans to quietly privatize both. Very simply, and without any reference to the ‘p’ word (privatization), the government has decreed the setting up of a board of governors (BOG) in each hospital and educational institution (universities, colleges and schools) that would comprise of approximately 20 members drawn predominantly from the private sector. This BOG would have complete control over sale and management of all assets including property, hiring, firing and salaries of all staff, setting of fees for students and patients, in addition to any other acts that the BOG may feel is suitable for its purvey. There is no recourse to appeal to the decisions of the BOG. Each BOG would be headed by a chairperson who would have CEO type authority in making these decisions and implementing them.

In the case of education, a Model University Ordinance has been promulgated that encapsulates reforms suggested by a Commission that was headed by Mr. Lakha, the chairman of the private Agha Khan University. The commission which has now been given a permanent position as the Higher Education Commission, vigorously denies that the reforms will lead to privatization and points to the fact that this word is not mentioned once in its report. It is claimed that BOGS will make the system more efficient. This is undeniable. BOGS will certainly be an efficient instrument to enforce the draconian reforms while perpetuating the power of those behind them. That it will completely kill the ‘effectiveness’ or the raison d ‘etre of the education system is of course besides the point. Efficiency and profits are the holy grail of the new world order and BOGS will probably do its job admirably in order to increase both for the private sector. BOGS’ efficiency will be guaranteed since it won’t be responsible to anybody in the ultimate analysis and there have been no guidelines set to evaluate the performance of BOGS.

Old government schools, universities, colleges and hospitals occupy acres of prime property. The Punjab University, for instance, has approximately 2800 acres of prime property. Some in the education bureaucracy who have publicly supported the ordinance are no doubt looking forward to having access to these resources to generate funds for the institutions i.e. themselves as members of the BOGs. Nothing in the history of various boards in Pakistan and the careers of these people leads us to believe anything other than this is possible. Indeed, according to Prof. Nazim Hussein, Chairperson of the Joint Action Committee leading the protests, one of the old government schools in Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi recently placed under this system has now been ‘efficiently’ replaced by shops that were allegedly sold for Rs. 1 crore each. Although the school is no longer, the BOG for that school still stands and of course the members need their pay.

Why does the Commission’s claim that fees for students will not rise to the point that they are prohibitive, not surprise anyone? Perhaps because we know that the Commission would find itself in a slightly awkward position if it acknowledged that very soon, the policy will eliminate all those ‘unlucky’ enough to be born rich. They will be relieved of the onerous job of going to classes and getting an education. Fees in some of the Lahore colleges where some version of BOGS has already been implemented now range from Rs. 32,000 to 40,000 per year, with the result that a student who topped her F.A. exams was unable to study at the prestigious Kinnaird College for Women (where fees currently stand at Rs. 38,000). It is not hard to see that this trend will and can only grow, depriving middle and lower middle class students of a decent education. Since most of the BOGS are composed of members of private corporations (some of which call themselves educational institutions), the members are lavishly paid with the salaries of some as high as Rs. 300,000 a month. Instead of the state supporting students, the students will end up supporting the BOGS.

The fact is that with the government clearly not having any intention of increasing spending on education, further fee rises are inevitable inspite of current government reassurances to the contrary. Mr. Lakha insists that parents must know the “true” cost of educating their children. In an interview to Herald, a monthly magazine, he said “we must inform them that even if their tuition fee is say Rs. 2000, the actual cost of education is around Rs. 80,000 and the state is paying as much as Rs. 78,000”. How will parents be informed of these “true costs” if not by bearing them, is anybody’s guess. The Model University ordinance has creatively spelt out all its activities in detail that will lead to privatization, without mentioning that word once. It must be commended on that.

What is truly ironic is that the private universities themselves, upheld as examples would be unable to be what they are if it were not for government subsidies (access roads, electricity connections), international aid (CIDA, USAid) or simply the benevolence of their founders (e.g., the Agha Khan for AKU). And LUMS, AKU, GIK and IBA represent less than 1% of the total privatized educational institutes in Pakistan. The rest have no facilities, no open spaces, no libraries worth talking about, almost no permanent staff and produce lower quality graduates than the public institutions, while charging higher fees.

That the quality of Pakistan’s public universities will go down with these reforms is a foregone conclusion. Pakistan is not the first country to undergo privatization of education. In other developing countries, privatization has already reduced access and declined quality (see for example, Martin Carnoy and Patrick McEwan’s (both of Stanford University) study of Chile’s educational reforms). With universities and colleges being encouraged to become ‘sustainable’, they often have no resort but to drastically cut the number and quality of teachers. Although an individual teacher may earn much more, the student/teacher ratio increases in each class and teachers are unable to do anything more than deliver carbon copy lectures all day. A case in point: Since being privatized, the English literature department at Government College has laid off most senior staff to reduce costs. They now hire recently graduated girls, who are not paid more than around Rs. 5000, or retired professors who again are happy to work for a pittance. There is no continuation, no commitment to research, and no quality control since teachers change from term to term. Similarly, in hospitals junior doctors with little or no experience are in charge as higher grade and senior doctors have been forced to retire to reduce costs. The quality of both education and health are being jeopardized under the new system. How the Commission has promised to be able to pay the new salaries to doctors and teachers without making fees for students and patients prohibitive (remember the common man whose average income is Rs. 2000 supports a family of at least four) is beyond human calculation.

As part of these reforms, educational institutions have been forced to introduce self financed seats. The idea is that students who may not have made it on merit to the prestigious state universities can pay extra for the privilege to study and since they would pay so much they would value their education more. One can only imagine how competitive and inspiring one can expect one’s fellow student to be given that 30-50% of them will have ‘won’ their seats in an auction. And expectedly, the ‘self-finance’ (a phrase which has a perverse, and no doubt deliberate resemblance to ‘self-made’) fee amount is now only the bare minimum that students seeking admission have to pay. The more they can “donate” above and beyond that, the better their chances of admission.

The fact is that the problems highlighted by the Lakha commission which is being taken as the basis for all these reforms, are not related to public spending vs. private but to the suffocating hierarchy that is present in all our institutions. The Model University Ordinance further consolidates that hierarchy by consolidating unprecedented power at the top, in addition to privatizing education. The key to useful change is not handing over government responsibility to BOGS but in fact diverting more state resources and responsibility to health and education. At a paltry less than 3% of GNP each it is a joke. There is no doubt that there are numerous problems within this system. However, the fact that these institutions are able to deliver any quality at all at these contribution levels from the government, is a testament to the dedication of many within these institutions.

In the final analysis, it would be naïve to consider only the Commission as the perpetrator of these reforms. These are a logical extension of the larger privatization agenda that is operative in the country, and driven by the IMF and World Bank. There is not just operational evidence like the meetings between the Higher Education Commission and World Bank officials reported in various newspapers, but also the imprint of the World Bank/IMF world view where so called “subsidies” to health and education are being trashed.

Subsidies to health and education are not just that, they are subsidies to the development and independence of a nation. We in Pakistan are well on our way towards the fate of country’s like Zambia where the World Bank practiced its privatization policies in health and education with predictably disastrous results. As it is the government currently only supports approximately 30% of the education sector and roughly the same of the health sector. The rest has been privatized already. This 30% of the overall health and education facilities has to support around 60% of our population that lives on or below the poverty line and another 20-30% that is marginally above it. There are already privatized schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals that provide services to the upper middle class onwards. Thus 70% of the health and education facilities already cater to the less than 10% of Pakistan’s population that constitutes the upper middle class and beyond. Privatizing the remaining facilities will not provide substantial gains to these upper classes but will mean absolute destitution for those below.

It is in this recognition of the role of IMF and World Bank, in this stance against the privatization of health and education and the imposition of corporate rule leading to further sharp divisions within the society, that the movement of these teachers, doctors and lawyers has taken on the role of a political movement. Widespread protests against these reforms are taking place in all major and smaller cities all over Pakistan. A Joint Action Committee representing teachers, doctors and lawyers has been set up that is leading these protests. While media reportage of this movement has been extensive in the vernacular press, English dailies have tended to accord it less space. It would be foolish to dismiss these protests as the protests of the inefficient in the system who are going to be thrown out by the reforms. A case in point is the leadership of the movement in Punjab, which includes Dr. Yasmin Rashid, a renowned gynecologist in Lahore, a professor at Fatima Jinnah and King Edward Medical colleges and who has made important research contributions. She was the first person in the world to isolate the gene located in microcephly. She has been performing in-utero transfusion for free for poor patients and this is a procedure that costs around E 10,000 at the Cromwell Hospital in London. She is also associated with Ganga Ram hospital where she and some other doctors have been arranging for all patients in her ward to receive free lunch for the last three years. She and others leading this movement have very little to gain from this rebellion but a lot to lose. As of November 26th, Dr. Yasmin Rashid, Prof. Nazim Hussain (chairman of the JAC) and five others in JAC leadership have been dismissed from their positions.

A unique feature of this protest movement is the coming together of previously antagonistic groups like the left and the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaiba (IJT, loosely translated as Islamic Students Group). IJT, initially funded by the CIA is now driven by the needs of its constituents who are primarily from the lower middle class, and has had to rebel against past masters. These reforms are being pushed through at such speed and with such fierce disregard for the opinion of the all stakeholders that most people have not even had the time to realize exactly what the reforms will mean for the Pakistani society. Of course, the government has not helped matters by not releasing any details to maintain a level of ambiguity about the reforms. At the same time, this very disregard for whatever concerns they have voiced is making the protestors angrier by the day. These reforms strike at the heart of whatever meagre gains the middle class and below had made in the last fifty years in Pakistan. There is increasing awareness among the protesting groups that it is not just any other reform to the system but one which will mean massive disenfranchisement and a complete catastrophe for the fragile remanents of a civic society that exist in Pakistan.

The movement has made some significant gains including the reversal of a denationalizing order that was due to be implemented in July 2002. During the first week of December 2002, President or General Musharaf, depending on how he wants to be known that day, stated that the Model University Ordinance will not be repealed even though they are open to making some changes. All of this is significant for a protest movement that is trying to make inroads in a highly depoliticized society, in a country where none of the major political parties has shown any commitment to their demands. More importantly, the movement has the tide of history with it to some extent. All over the world, people are rebelling against the New World Order that has been plundering their resources and taking away any gains that might have been made in the 60s.

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