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For an educated democracy

In earlier articles I have stressed the critically important role of education in the process of democracy. In Pakistan we have seen a sinister plot at work in which political parties have ensured that the majority of Pakistanis remain illiterate and, therefore, easily exploitable. Democracy under these conditions is a complete farce.

In Surah Inaam, it is stated that we should not just follow the majority opinion, otherwise we will be led astray. There is no concept of democracy in the conventional sense in Islam. The Islamic concept of democracy is much more sophisticated, relying on consultation (‘shoorah’) with those with ‘fehm’ (understanding).

It is interesting that when the US was created, there was also no concept of one man one vote. Only white men with land or property or sufficient taxable wealth were allowed to vote. In Pakistan too a graduate degree was made a prerequisite for candidacy during Musharraf’s time. Unfortunately many simply forged their degrees and bribed the officials of the Election Commission to look the other way. Some 200 parliamentarians were ultimately found to hold suspect or forged degrees. Some of them became federal ministers, and now many of them are being prosecuted and facing jail sentences.

The introduction of a degree as a requirement to be elected was an excellent move, since the prime role of parliament is to make laws. How can members do that without proper education? In Iran, a master’s degree is an essential requirement to become a member of parliament. We should have the same requirement in Pakistan. Most cabinet members in Iran have PhD degrees. In Pakistan the degree requirement could have helped improve governance, had parliamentarians not tricked the system by forging their degrees.

In order to provide opportunities to all to contest elections, it may be wiser to introduce criteria under which at least 70 percent of the provincial and national assemblies have Masters or PhD degree-holders with good academic careers throughout, and the remaining 30 percent are persons from various walks of life with unblemished records of service to society. All of them must be carefully screened by a judicial panel of reputed retired judges before being allowed to contest in the national elections.

Pakistan spends only about 1.8 percent of its GDP on education, which ranks us among the bottom seven countries of the world. The previous government approved a national education policy in which it committed to contribute seven percent of GDP for education. However, it refused to implement its own policy as there were more pressing needs, and the policy proved to be a huge national deception. According to Transparency International some Rs8,500 billion (about nine billion US dollars) were plundered by the previous regime in the first four years of its existence.

With the change of government, hopes have been raised that the PML-N may give a higher priority to education. An education emergency needs to be declared immediately and at least five percent of GDP needs to be allocated to education with a quarter of this going to higher education. All the different boards in various provinces need to be dissolved and a single national system of education with a uniform curriculum and a single national examination needs to be introduced.

India has been pursuing a very dynamic policy to uplift the quality of higher education and has set aside Indian Rs120, 000 crore in its current five-year plan. Its seven Indian Institutes of Technology have been expanded to 16 IITs, and 200 new universities as well as 40 centres of excellence are being set up. Faculty salaries have tripled in the last few years. The country is now producing the largest number of qualified engineers in the world, well ahead of China or the US.

The tremendous progress achieved by Pakistan during 2003-2008 after establishment of the HEC provided the catalyst for India to upgrade and expand its higher education sector (see Neha Mehta in the Hindustan Times ‘Pak Threat to Indian Science’ July 22, 2006).

Unfortunately the progress in Pakistan was short-lived as the PPP government set about destroying the HEC in a very deliberate fashion. Its budget was drastically slashed and scholarships for students abroad were stopped, leading to my resignation as chairman HEC in October 2008 in protest. The attacks however continued.

Raza Rabbani tried his best to have the HEC fragmented and the pieces distributed to the provinces, but the Supreme Court of Pakistan accepted our petition and declared the devolution notice issued to the HEC by the government illegal and unconstitutional. A second attempt was made more recently to take control of the HEC by appointing the secretary ministry of education and training as the executive head of the HEC. Again a petition filed on this was accepted by the Supreme Court and the PPP government was forced to withdraw its illegal notification.

Pakistan stands at a precipice today. It is the enemy within that is the greatest threat to this nation. The argument that democracy must be given a chance to work is just an excuse used to take away national wealth to foreign lands without any external interference. Democracy is only useful if it serves the interests of Pakistan, especially its tens of millions that are dying of hunger and poverty. If our system of democracy fails to deliver then we should abandon this road and ensure that a new system of ‘controlled democracy’ is introduced in which only those who are honest, competent and visionary can come into power.

This can only be done after genuine electoral reforms are conducted under proper supervision, and after careful screening of all candidates. However, it is still not too late. Many hopes rest with the PML-N – that the party will repair the damage done to this country and ensure that the corrupt will be taken to task. I hope the PML-N will set clear targets and launch a vigorous plan to transition to a ‘knowledge economy’.

The richest treasure that Pakistan has is its youth. We must slash our national budget in all other sectors and divert it to education – looking at this as a national emergency. It is only by investing in our children that we can assure our future.

The writer is the former chairman of the Higher Education Commission and currently president of Pakistan Academy of Sciences.Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com

Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, "For an educated democracy," The News. 2013-08-03.
Keywords: Social sciences , Economics , Political parties , Election commission-Pakistan , Law making , Higher education , Educational development , Society-Pakistan , Economic issues , Democracy , Education , Elections , Poverty , Islam , Gen Musharraf , United States , Pakistan , China , India , GDP , PMLN , IITs , HEC , PPP