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October 14, 2019

No public school for over 45,000 children of Essa Nagri


October 14, 2019

Photos by author.

At the dead end of Street No. 1 in Essa Nagri, a densely populated Christian-dominated neighbourhood, located along Sir Shah Suleman Road in District East’s Gulshan Town, stands the Awami Church.

Above its entrance is placed the board of the Pak Care Fellowship School, which displays the Constitution’s Article 25A (Right to education): “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”

The sign also states that the school is financially supported by the Sindh Education Foundation, a semi-autonomous organisation functioning under the Government of Sindh to undertake educational initiatives in disadvantaged areas.

There is not a single state-run school in the entire neighbourhood for the more than 45,000 local children. The space inside the church is limited, so the school there can only accommodate 350 students.

Essa Nagri comprises seven streets. The neighbourhood was settled in 1962 by Christian families who had migrated from Punjab and almost 99 per cent of the inhabitants are Christian.

According to the relevant union committee (UC) office, Essa Nagri is one of the oldest Christian settlements in the city. Around 90,000 Christians, a little over half of them children, reside in the neighbourhood. But most of these kids are deprived of access to free education.

Besides public schools, Essa Nagri also lacks basic amenities such as potable water, and proper drainage systems and streets. An open storm water drain, which has been a cause of many incidents, also passes through the neighbourhood.

The broken paved lanes have not been repaired since long, while unplanned housing and the dense local population are making it difficult for the residents to get enough fresh air.

The area has no free spaces such as parks and playgrounds. Children and teenagers play cricket, while the older population, including the elderly, chat or play cards out in every street. One can hardly pass through any of the streets, especially in the evenings.

Parents lack options

“The number of children is higher than that of adults in every family,” said Councillor Atif Khaliq of UC-20 Ward-3, adding that though the neighbourhood lacks public schools and these kids have no access to free education, there are about five missionary schools at different churches charging between Rs800 and Rs1,500 in fees. “But not all parents can afford to send their children to the church schools.”

Majority of Essa Nagri’s residents are underprivileged. They have the lowest paying jobs as sweepers, rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, etc. This is why only a few of the students get to matriculate.

“When the kids quit school, their parents send them to laborious workplaces such as truck loading and unloading points, mechanic shops, scrap stalls, and sweeping and cleaning services,” said Khaliq.

He said the parents put their children to work despite being well aware that education can bring some positive changes in the lives of their kids. “They want their kids to be educated, but where in Essa Nagri can one find a government school?” He claimed that public schools in the nearby localities are not welcoming towards Christian children.

Yaqoob Masih, 40, said his three kids studied at a missionary school until the fifth standard, following which he was unable to pay their school fees. “My monthly income is around Rs15,000. It is next to impossible for me to spend half of my earnings on their fees,” he said, adding that had there been a government school in their neighbourhood, he would have sent his kids there.

After the children stopped going to school, two of them joined a mechanic shop, while the elder one sometimes assists his father in his job. “I’m not completely satisfied, but my kids are at least learning some skills. Maybe one day they’ll run their own mechanic shop,” said Masih.

A lost school

A public school in Munnu Goth, near the Old Sabzi Mandi area, had in the past been running in Essa Nagri. In the late 1990’s the school was shifted from Essa Nagri to Munnu Goth. The aim was to ensure that the school also benefited Baloch and Pakhtun children.

“The authorities had assured us that they’ll relocate the school,” said Salamat Khokhar, a senior member of the Pakistan Christian National Party. “However, it’s been more than two decades. Neither has the school been relocated nor have the authorities bothered to build a new school in the area.”

Khokhar said he and his party members have repeatedly approached the Government of Sindh, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, the Sindh Education & Literacy Department and other relevant authorities to resolve the issue.

“Earlier this year, however, we were told that the area doesn’t have enough space to accommodate a public school. But the fact is that there are eight amenity plots in the neighbourhood.”

Official version

Contradicting the locals’ claims, School Education Karachi Director Hamid Karim said government schools ensure access to education to all children without discrimination. “We don’t have community-specific schools. Public educational institutions operate in such localities where all the communities can have equal access to them.”

He said Essa Nagri is located quite near such areas, so the residents of the neighbourhood have the choice to enrol their kids there. “We have zero tolerance for religious discrimination. If the Directorate of School Education Karachi receives such a complaint, strict action will be taken against the guilty party.”