A school system has been running under a bridge in Karachi for over six decades

October 21, 2019

This one-of-a-kind school has been running for more than six decades inside an arch of a bridge in the red zone of Karachi. The bridge in question is the Khayaban-e-Iqbal Flyover, formerly known as Clifton bridge that was built from the partition, that connects the Frere Hall to Teen Talwar.

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Inside a classroom, a teacher is explaining a lesson to the children of grade 5 when suddenly the chugging sound of a train, which seems to be passing just next to the wall, along with loud horns interrupts the class. The teacher and her students wait for a few minutes until the train leaves the area.

As the lesson resumes, many ear-piercing noise of horns, squealing wheels and popping engines of vehicles, which seem to be moving just above the ceiling of the classroom, consistently come in but the proceedings of the classroom continue as usual as if the teacher and students are used to that noise.

But this is not all. With trains passing on the same level where the school is and cars passing above it, the schoolchildren sometimes also feel some disturbance happening under the floor. This underground noise is caused by moving wastewater as a drain lies just beneath the classroom.

Students in a classroom. Pictures by writer

One may wonder if Karachi has such a school — the roof of which is being used as a flyover with a railway track passing just next to its wall and a drain running right under its floor. The answer is in the positive.

This one-of-a-kind school has been running for more than six decades inside an arch of a bridge in the red zone of Karachi. The bridge in question is the Khayaban-e-Iqbal Flyover, formerly known as Clifton bridge that was built before the partition, that connects the Frere Hall to Teen Talwar.

Anyone who travelled on this bridge must have noticed another bridge, the PIDC flyover, passing above it but only few would have the slightest hint of any public school operating inside one of the yellow-stone arches of the bridge.

In fact, there is not only one school running there as the bridge houses a total of four schools, including three government-run schools that have been functioning inside the arches since the 1950s. The fourth school is being managed by a non-governmental organization (NGO).

The government schools under the bridge include the DMC Boys Government Primary School, which runs in the morning shift, and the DMC Boys and Girls Government Elementary School, which operates in both the morning and evening shifts, making the total number of state-run schools three.

Since 1950s

The schools are located a few furlongs away from the Chief Minister House and the Governor House. The area lies in the constituency of NA-247, from where the incumbent president of Pakistan, Dr Arif Alvi, was elected to the National Assembly twice in the general elections of 2013 and 2018.

According to the teachers of the schools, in the early 1950s, then first lady of Pakistan Sheila Irene Pant, who had changed her name to Ra'ana after marrying Liaquat Ali Khan, had started these educational institutes under the supervision of her organisation, the All Pakistan Women’s Association (Apwa). The reason behind setting up the schools was providing education to the underprivileged children of the Pakistan Railway Quarters in Civil Lines Karachi.

Ra’ana had founded Apwa in 1949 to promote education and ensure women participation in the national and societal development.

Later on, these schools were nationalised under the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Nationalisation of Education Policy, 1972, and went under the provincial government’s control. Afterwards, they were handed over to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC).

Since December 2015, when the Sindh government through a notification devolved three departments of the KMC, including the education department, to the District Municipal Corporations (DMC), these schools have been functioning under the DMC South’s management.

A good strength

Over the past many decades, thousands of students have studied from these schools, which, in spite of their odd location, provide access to free education to hundreds of children.

Though the number of children at the schools has recently decreased owing to the recent apex–court backed demolition drive, a large number of students are still enrolled there.

Currently, around 500 students are registered at the four schools. Of them, 72 are enrolled in the primary school, 78 girls in the evening shift of the elementary school and 147 boys in its morning shift. The rest of the students attend the NGO-run school.

Teachers of these schools said sometimes their former students visit them and tell them that they had once studied at the arch schools. “Many of my students visit the school. They sit here on the floor and recall the days gone. Most of them work in the Pakistan Army, the Sindh police and the Pakistan Railways,” claimed 56-year-old Shabana Ghazi, who has been teaching in the primary section for the last 26 years.

“Some two years, a student came to me and told me that he is working at the Sindh Bank as a senior accountant,” Ghazi said, adding that it was the proudest moment of her life as she felt the cause, for which she had spent half of her life, was bearing fruit.

Selfless teachers

Ghazi says: “When I was posted at the school in 1993, the school was just an arch of the bridge. There was no electricity, no drinking water, no toilets, and the arch was even not fully covered.”

Back then, her first salary was just Rs315 that she could not afford to spend on the school. However, she managed to get some funds from the education department and also collected donations from her relatives to provide some basic facilities to her students.

“I bought cement bricks to cover the arch. I remember I would stay at the school till late evening to monitor the work. I had hardly managed to get a little amount for raising walls to cover both sides of the arch,” she said.

“After a decade-long struggle, the power supply company provided electricity to the school. From the donations, we built toilets for the children and also the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board allowed water connection to the school.”

She said she had never wished to be appointed at a school housed in a gigantic building. “Teaching is not only my profession, but it is part of my faith. I believe sincere people can work anywhere in any conditions.”

Another senior teacher Talat Jahan, who has been teaching in one of the schools since 1983, says, “When I joined the school, the surrounding area was an open space, in which our students would play in recess. At that time, my students never wished for facilities. They just wanted to study. And I taught them honestly. I thought that there is no better school than the school housed in the arch of a bridge.”

According to Jahan, her students come from the lower-income groups. Many former students of the school have their younger siblings enrolled here, and now some of them come here for their children’s admissions. “To continue the tradition, I have dedicated my life to the arch school because the children of the Railway Quarters have no other school. If I stop teaching here, no one would come to teach them,” she said.

Precarious conditions

The arches of the bridge seem strong and they have stood strong for many decades, but the railway track passing under the next arch of the bridge poses danger to the lives of the students. Luckily, no unfortunate train accident involving students has been reported since the inception of the schools.

The children have cross the railway track on a daily basis to reach the school. During the break time, the teachers have to sit outside the school to keep an eye on the children wandering near the track.

“We are very cautious for our students and don’t let them go alone,” Ghazi said, adding that at the school closing time, parents or elder siblings of most of the students come to the school to take them back to homes.

Not a proper school

The students of the Clifton Bridge schools have the privilege of access to some so-called basic facilities such as toilets, drinking water and electricity. But the fact is there are no playgrounds and proper classrooms because the arch schools lack proper school buildings.

“These schools are operating inside an arch of a bridge. Even though the teachers and students never complain, the reality is that the railway bridge is not a substitute for a proper school building,” said Fida ur Rehman, a social activist residing in the nearby Hijrat Colony area. He was of the view that a school running next to a railway track told nothing but the story of criminal negligence of the relevant authorities.

Commenting on the lack of facilities, Ghazi said, “My students are just little kids. They study in their primary level here. They always come to me and remark that other kids in their neighbourhood say that they have playgrounds in their schools and we don’t have them. This is really an upsetting question. But I don’t have any answer for them.”

The schools also lack safe exits. There was a gate that opened to a residential area but it was closed by the management of the apartments located next to the bridge. Many times, the teachers requested the management to allow them to open the door but they were refused.

The toilets of the primary section have neither doors nor curtains.

The front side of the schools has been occupied by Dhaba hotels where railway labourers take rest, have lunch and tea. In the surrounding areas, heaps of garbage are spread all over.

There is no proper partition of classrooms inside schools as some cupboards or similar things are used to divide the area into aisles where classes for different grades are held.

Often teachers avoid delivering lectures at the same as it may cause confusion. Therefore, when one of them teaches her students in one of the aisles, the others check homework of the students.

There are also not enough number of teachers at the schools. One of the teachers, Farhan Ahmed, was appointed as a peon but he also teaches here to address the shortage of the teachers. When he was appointed, he had only passed his matriculation but recently, he appeared in the intermediate examinations and cleared them. “I can teach the students of grades 1 and 2. I teach them besides performing all my other duties.”

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