OVER the years, many readers have accused me of highlighting only the country’s negative aspects, and not writing more ‘positively’.
Frankly, I have never seen this as being a columnist’s primary role. After all, the government deploys vast resources into burnishing its image, and certainly does not need me to blow its trumpet. But while I seldom have much to say in favour of official policies, I have, from time to time, discussed individual initiatives that I think deserve public recognition because of their impact on ordinary lives. This piece is intended to give credit to one such individual and one such initiative.
Surjani Town is a vast, barren new development on the sprawling outskirts of Karachi along the Super Highway to Hyderabad. Around 30 miles from the city centre is a small, low-cost township called ‘Khuda ki Basti’, the brainchild of the famous development expert Tasneem Siddiqui. In a small, unassuming building here is the Amal-e-Danish, a school earlier called the ‘One Rupee School’.
First established at a nearby location a decade ago, the school now has around 700 children studying in different classes. Even 10 years ago, a rupee per student didn’t go very far in meeting running costs. Now, many beggars refuse to take this tiny amount. But that’s how much Parveen Rao, the driving spirit behind the project, collects from each student per month.
Clearly, to take on such a venture, a person has to be possessed, and Ms Rao is no exception. For years now, she has been making the long commute in her rattle-trap of a car. In the beginning, she had to go personally to the nearby goths or villages to convince parents to send their children to her school. The parents of little girls were hesitant to start with, but over time, she broke down their resistance. One reason for her success has been that she mostly hires her teachers locally.
But it’s a constant struggle: with running costs of around 150,000 rupees per month, she is running around every month to make sure that salaries and utility bills are paid on time. Fortunately for her, a local philanthropist underwrites the ‘One Rupee School’ to the extent of Rs 50,000 per month. He has also paid for the construction of the school building. But Ms Rao usually has to dip into the family earnings and her own small business to meet costs. The reality of this precarious financial arrangement is reflected in the lack of furniture and teaching aids.
So why did she get involved in education in the first place? Ms Rao says that when she was young, her parents prevented her from going to high school. When she was older, she put herself through college and university, writing many articles on literature in the process. Her writings have been collected in the form a book. But when she was struggling to get an education, she vowed to help others in her predicament.
Initially, her school was located in a small rented house in Ayesha Nagar in Surjani Town. But when Khuda-ki-Basti was launched, she was able to convince Mr Tasneem Siddiqui to let her have a plot of land at subsidized rates.
Although a madressah has opened in the neighbourhood, for most children her school is the only chance for an education. As I entered the modest building, I heard the sound of many young boys and girls learning their lessons aloud. I was next struck by the cleanliness of the place.
Entering classrooms with Ms Rao, we were greeted with a chorus of “Good morning, madam!” as the pupils sprang to their feet. The blackboards were covered with drawings of different fruits with their names in English. I privately wondered how many of the fruit these kids had actually seen. In some classrooms, volunteers piped up with poem recitals.
In one nursery class, I noticed a 10-year old boy sitting with children half his age. On enquiring the reason, I was told that as a matter of policy, the school does not refuse admission because a child is not equipped to fit into a class of his or her own age-group. “For most of the children here,” Ms Rao explains. “This is the only school available. So we can’t penalize them if their parents did not enrol them any sooner.”
When the killer earthquake struck last October, Ms Rao flew to Islamabad and travelled to Muzaffarabad to assess the needs of the children there. She now has one school in the latter for 60 pupils, and one in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital for 90. I asked her why she had taken on this additional responsibility when she had enough headaches with her Karachi school. She replied simply: “Because the children needed schooling.”
Although she has a headmistress running the ‘One-Rupee School’, she has to do much of the work, from fund-raising to getting question papers photocopied. As there is no telephone at the school, her physical presence there is necessary for much of the week, taking her away from her own work. And the hour-long commute each way in heavy traffic needs all her concentration; her dream is to be able to hire a driver.
In most of the classrooms, the children sit on mats placed on the floor. The books in the bare library are stacked on tables as there are no book racks. Most of the illustrations in the rooms are drawings of cartoon characters done by students. An electricity connection is awaiting funds for a transformer.
Despite these and many other drawbacks, Parveen Rao is upbeat and serenely confident that she will be able to continue running her school. She sees this as a debt to society. For her, the children at her school deserve a chance. And although the facilities and the education are fairly basic, the only option these kids have is to go to the religious seminary that has begun operating in the area.
As we were driving back to town, I made a modest contribution to the school. Cheerfully, she accepted it, saying it would pay for the photocopying.