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September 08,2018

Literacy, democracy, and political rhetoric

Arshad Saeed Khan

Election campaigns in Pakistan are usually overwhelmed by certain slogans to lure voters. During 1970 elections, people of Pakistan saw a leader bolstering his popularity with fascinating promises of Roti, Kapra, and Makaan (Food, Clothes, and Shelter). After 1977, most of the politicians lost passion for human welfare and instead focused more on the accountability of each other. In the previous few elections, most of the political parties have been beefing up their manifestos with conventional texts on education and health, but none of the leaders ever highlighted the crucial role and need of investing on human development so emphatically did Imran Khan.

It is the first time in the history of Pakistan that a newly sworn-in prime minister, in his maiden speech to the nation, has firmly announced to accord priority to human development, focusing rightly on education and health. In fact, education, health, and Income are three pillars of the Human Development Index (HDI) introduced by the United Nations for measuring the socio-economic progress of countries. In the field of education, the rates of literacy and enrolment of children in schools are two global indicators to gauge the position of a nation in this area.

Till 1995, human development indicators of Pakistan were better than India and Bangladesh. For example, in 1995, Pakistan stood at 128th position in HD Index, whereas India and Bangladesh were placed below Pakistan in the HDI ranking by the United Nations, at 134th and 146th positions, respectively. After 1995, India and Bangladesh invested substantially on education and health of their people and surpassed Pakistan in HDI ranking. Now the positions of these countries have reversed. Pakistan is lagging behind India and Bangladesh in HDI ranking. Although Pakistan is a nuclear power, yet its education indicators are lower than other countries of the sub-region like Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. This article has been written on the occasion of International Literacy Day, 8th September, and in the backdrop of political hype generated by the new government in favor of human development. This write-up throws light on the linkages of literacy with democracy, and the challenges of basic education for the new government.

The State of Athens (Greek) is believed to be the territory where a rudimentary form of democratic decision-making forum was introduced first about 2,600 years ago, around 507 BC. The composition and dynamics of democratic forums first emerged in Athens and Rome during 6th century BC were quite different from what we believe and practice in the 21st century. The electorate was restricted to elite only. Women, the landless, and those not having a stake in the war campaigns were not allowed to participate in the affairs of government. In other words, early democratic systems were not inclusive in nature. Certain conditions were imposed or criteria were adopted as a tool or pretext to keep out the citizens whom the ruling classes considered inferior or ineligible to vote in the elections of representatives. It is surprising to note that various conditions for exclusion of masses in the democratic processes continued in different parts of the world, in some form or the other, until the middle of the 20th century.

The Magna Carta signed on 15th June 1215 between Crown and nobles of England is considered an important milestone in the journey towards democracy. However, this historical declaration benefitted the elite, the rich barons and church only, as privileges and protection provided in this document did not apply to the general masses. Until 1832 and even afterward, women and landless were not allowed to vote in England. The conditions of owning property as well as being a male, a criterion based on wealth and gender, deprived over 97% adult citizens to cast their vote during 1831 Elections in England and Wales. In the USA also a number of states have been denying the right to vote to the poor, convicted, and women till the middle of the 20th century. Pakistan came into being through a democratic process, although adult franchise or universal suffrage was not enacted in British India in its true spirit at that time and not all adult men and women were allowed to vote.

Apart from the ownership of property and bias in favour of white adult males, the literacy or ability to read and write were also included in the eligibility criteria for the voting right. From 1850 to 1960s, a number of states in the USA were administering ‘Literacy Tests’, usually to screen out African-Americans from the voter lists. All these historical facts indicate that powerful classes even in the developed countries have been imposing numerous restrictions to limit the participation of general masses in the elections. It is encouraging to observe that currently adult franchise or universal suffrage has been legally introduced in most of the countries, with the exception of a few monarchies.

Although all human beings, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, economic status, or educational level are now entitled to vote or come forward as a candidate in the elections, a direct relationship between literacy level of voters and degree of their participation in the democratic process is also a reality. An analysis of turnout rates of general elections in various countries supports and proves this conclusion. For example, in South Asia, two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are having lower literacy rates of 32 % and 57%, respectively. Whereas other countries in the sub-region namely India, Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka are ahead of us with higher literacy rates of 69%, 73%, 85%, 60%, 99% and 91%, respectively. With the exception of Bangladesh, voter turnout rates in the above mentioned other four countries were higher than Afghanistan and Pakistan during their previous elections, as reported by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). Turnout rates in these countries during their last elections have been: 77.6% in Sri Lanka, 77.93% in the Maldives, 68.67% in Nepal and 66.40% in India. Whereas turnout rate in Pakistan was 53.62% in 2013 and 55.8% in 2018 elections. This difference in terms of low turnout rate is significant, and it reinforces the premise that literacy rate is an important factor in the turnout rate. The higher the literacy rate is, the higher the voter turnout rate in elections.

Certainly, a number of other factors like security situation and distance from the polling stations also affect the voter turnout rate in the elections. Influence of literacy rate of citizens on the pattern of their participation in voting is also established when we compare data on literacy rates and turnout rates of various areas in Pakistan. An analysis of the data of aggregate provincial turnout rates released by the Election Commission of Pakistan for 2013 elections highlights the impact of literacy rate of the local population on their level of participation in the casting of votes. For example, in case of 2013 general elections, highest turnout rate of 60% was documented in Punjab, the province leading other provinces with the highest literacy rate of 61%. In Sindh province, only 54% of voters exercised their right to vote as its literacy rate of 56% in 2013-14 was also low as compared with Punjab. Similarly, in KP province 53% people of age 10+ are literate and accordingly turnout rate was only 45%, lower than Punjab and Sindh. The same trend was observed in the case of Balochistan, with the lowest literacy rate of just 43%, its turnout rate was also lowest, 43% only. Partial data on turnout rate has been released by the ECP for 2018 elections also. The highest turnout rate of 60.96% has been reported in Chitral, a district of KP with a higher literacy rate of 62%, which is above the overall provincial literacy rate of 53%.

It is widely believed that democracy is more successful in societies where citizens are politically conscious and know their rights and obligations. This may not be the case in many developing countries where bulks of the masses are illiterate. The success of any democratic system of governance largely depends on the participation of its citizens. Citizens can actively participate in and learn from debates on critical issues of the governance and possible solutions when they are educated and consulted. In less educated or less literate communities, a number of external factors and actors influence voters’ choice, including tribal heads, family elders, religious figures, political activists in the locality, and more importantly, the mass media. All these factors or opinion makers usually transmit and impose a singular point of view and illiterate voters have little or no opportunities to learn about other alternate solutions, as being illiterate they are not able to read newspapers and magazines. Due to a higher rate of literacy and higher per capita income, newspaper circulation in developed countries is also high.

In Pakistan, as per latest data reported by the United Nations, total average circulation of newspapers per 1,000 inhabitants is 50 only, compared with 551 in Japan, 515 in Norway, 289 in the UK, 109 in Malaysia, and 70 in India. Newspaper reading by the citizens enables them to learn more about national challenges, local development issues, possible approaches to resolve these issues, understand the viewpoints of various political parties, and assess the performance of the government. This information empowers them to make independent and informed decisions in the elections.

International organisations like UNESCO emphasise that literacy is not only a right in itself; but also an instrument for achieving other rights. Basic education or literacy empowers individuals and as a result of mass literacy the whole society benefits. Literacy levels of voters help them in shaping their opinion and determine their ability to make independent decisions. Illiterate voters, especially in rural areas are more prone to be influenced and swayed by local prejudices or exploitation by the powerful, rich, educated or astute elements in the area.

The past trend and current situation of literacy are depressing and should be a matter of great concern for the new rulers. In 1951, the literacy rate of Pakistan was 17.9% and the number of illiterates was 18.64 million only. Due to rapid population growth and the inability of the successive governments to bring all children in school, the illiterate population doubled and swelled to over 50.38 million by 1998. Based on the latest figures released by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Govt of Pakistan, it is estimated that population of illiterates in the country may have further swelled and crossed 65 million, a three-fold surge in the number of illiterate comparing with situation in 1951. At present, half of the rural population in the country cannot read and write. Hence these people are isolated and disconnected from the world of print. In rural areas of Sindh, about two-thirds or 64% people are illiterate and only 19% rural women can read and write. The situation in Balochistan is worse, where the overall literacy rate is just 41%, as such more than half of the people in this province are illiterate. In rural areas of this province, two-thirds or 67% people cannot read and write and 85% rural women are illiterate.

International partners and researchers in Pakistan have been complaining about contradictions and discrepancies in education data. Two relevant departments of the Government of Pakistan have been releasing quite different figures of school enrolment rates. Surveys conducted by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics indicate that only 54% children of age 5 to 9 are attending school. This figure has been published in one of the prestigious documents of the country, Pakistan Economic Survey (2017-18). On the contrary, the Ministry of Federal Education has been presenting an exaggerated figure of 77%, which is based on optimistic projections. There is a gap of 23 points in the primary education Net Enrolment Rates (NER) released by two government organisations. As per estimates of the Ministry of Federal Education, the number of out-of-school children is around 22 million. Whereas independent estimates based on figures of Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement (PSLM) survey reveal that the out-of-school children in the country may be well over 35 million. This self-deceiving attitude towards data should be checked and policy makers should create courage to face ground realities.

Since 1981 until 2011, the literacy rate of the country has been increasing at a slow but steady pace, resulting in a net addition of one percentile point per annum. Unfortunately, in recent years, a negative trend is now being observed as after 2011 growth of literacy rate has been further slowed down. In reality, the literacy rate of the country has been stagnant during the last 7 years, after devolution. The scope and funding for adult literacy and non-formal basic education programmes have been cut down after 2011. Apart from its higher rate of illiteracy and a large number of out-of-school children, Pakistan has reduced funding to cater to the learning needs of a large proportion of disadvantaged children and youth who were not covered by the formal school system.

By signing ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ at the UN, Pakistan has committed to achieve targets of SDGs. According to Sustainable Development Goal No 4, Pakistan is required to achieve 100% enrolment and completion rates in primary education and 100% literacy rate by 2030. Pakistan has already missed the targets of Education For All and MDGs (2000-2015). If the current slow pace continues in the education sector, Pakistan will once again fail to achieve SDG targets by 2030. By maintaining the current conventional pace, Pakistan will hardly achieve 100% literacy rate by 2057, and 100% school enrolment by 2060. Can this predicted course be changed?.

Literacy should not be a precondition for voting, nonetheless, a higher literacy rate of masses is critical for the success of any democratic system. Hence, those who advocate for democracy as the best system of governance must also emphasise for full thrust programmes to promote literacy in the country. Since literacy rate and school enrolment are two key indicators of human development, it is expected that new government will take concrete steps to not only improve education indicators of the country but also to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. The government will have to adopt a three-pronged strategy i.e. expansion in formal schools to cover all new born school-age children, the opening of Non-Formal Basic Education schools to reach out 35 million out-of-school children, and adult literacy programmes for 60 million illiterate youth and adults. Bringing all stakeholders around the table and signing a ‘Joint Declaration on Education For All’ or Charter of Education by all political parties may provide impetus to the movement. Failing to launch a countrywide education emergency drive, the promises of human development and creation of a literate society in Pakistan will remain a political rhetoric, till another political party coins a new slogan to enchant and allure the masses in the next elections. It is expected that the new human-centric leader will like to be remembered in the history as a doer, an achiever, and not as a chatterer like many of his predecessors.

Writer is former Education Specialist of UNESCO

Email: askhan51yahoo.com


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