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Putting Own House In Order: Let’s Start From Balochistan

What does the future hold for a land that has most of its children out of school and more than half of its youth illiterate as it enters the second decade of 21st century? This is one of the many tragedies of Balochistan, 74 years after the country gained independence. How can a state allow this to happen to its citizens?

Buried under the political and economic marginalisation of the province is the less told story of widespread exclusion from education. According to the last round of the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) Survey that Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has been diligently conducting for more than 20 years, 59 per cent of the 5-16 years in Balochistan were out of school in 2018-19 compared to 51 per cent four years before. Even in urban areas, half of the children are out of school. The national average at 30 per cent — nothing to be proud of — looks ‘much better’ than the provincial figure.

Two-third of girls in this age cohort in Balochistan are out of school. More than half (61 per cent) of the people in Balochistan have never attended school. Net primary enrolment rate (5-9 years) at 33 per cent has seen an increase of only one per cent since 2001 while literacy among youth (15-24 years) declined from 38 per cent in 2013-14 to 37 per cent in 2018-19. In contrast, the national youth literacy is almost double at 72 per cent. The most chilling fact is the stagnation or declining trend on most education indicators for Balochistan over the last two decades as evident from PSLM surveys. Behind these cold statistics is the suffering of millions of children, women and men living in Balochistan.

With Pakistan ranked near the bottom globally in terms of education status, it is shocking to see the province struggling to reach even the mid-point of these abysmally low national averages. The story in other provinces is comparatively ‘encouraging’, though still far from satisfactory. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (excluding former FATA) managed to bring down their out-of-school children to 21 per cent and 31 per cent and youth literacy rate to 79 per cent and 72 per cent, respectively. Quality issues notwithstanding, net enrolment rates at primary, middle and matric (grade 10) levels in both provinces are around twice that of Balochistan. While Punjab has almost attained gender parity in school enrolment at all levels, Balochistan and KP have the lowest proportion of girls’ enrolment. Similar disparity exists in full immunization of children (12 – 23 months old) where Balochistan is at less than halfway mark of the other two provinces and showing a decline since 2008.

The PSLM data clearly shows the widening disparities between Balochistan and other provinces, especially Punjab and KP, since 2008 on education and health status of their respective population. Here it is important to clarify that education, health, water supply and sanitation have been provincial subjects even before the 2010 devolution under the 18th Amendment. Thus, provincial governments, for long, have had the responsibility as well as authority to plan, allocate available funds, and manage education and health facilities and development programs within the provincial boundary. Why is it that governments in Balochistan were unable to bring tangible improvements in education and health status of children and youth in the province over the last 10-12 years while governments in Punjab and KP – and to a lesser extent Sindh – have shown progress during the same period? This question begs a deeper analysis of the historical, social, geographic and political context of Balochistan and the role of the centre and security agencies in managing the affairs of the province, which is beyond the scope of this article.

At a marco level three elements that differentiate the context of Balochistan from other provinces are worth pointing out. First is the military operation against Baloch separatist groups that has been going on since 2005 at huge cost for the local population and security agencies. Second is the intrusive role of the centre (elected and unelected governments) and the establishment in creating unholy alliances to form government of its choice in Balochistan, and third is the fragmented political landscape of the province where no single political party has been able to win majority (or near majority) of provincial assembly seats and form a stable government unlike Punjab, Sindh and KP, which have seen PML-N, PPP, ANP or PTI win sizeable number of provincial assembly seats, form governments and complete their respective terms since the 2008 elections.

Regardless of the root causes of socio-economic decline of the province, this situation cannot and must not continue as lack of opportunities in Balochistan and the increasing educational gap between the least developed and more developed provinces is immoral, unconstitutional, and unjustifiable for the state. It will exacerbate economic inequality and sense of deprivation – also add fuel to the ongoing separatist movement in Balochistan. The situation is already explosive and further slide is likely to lead to a catastrophe with repercussions extending far beyond the provincial boundary.

We have seen the failure of past 15-year military operation against Baloch insurgent groups, the sectarian violence unleashed by the religion-oriented national cohesion efforts of security agencies, and malfunctioning of ‘manufactured’ provincial governments. More of this formula will lead to further deprivation and alienation in the province. Reversing the social and economic decline in Balochistan cannot be achieved through short term technical fixes or military solutions. First and foremost is to find a way out of the costly military operation through a process of political reconciliation that brings together all parties operating within the province including the militants and leads to creation of a peaceful environment for the people and provincial agencies to operate. The political reconciliation should also enable the formation of a credibly elected government in Balochistan that has stakes in the province as well as popular support garnered, most likely, through a coalition of parties as no single party is able to win majority of the provincial assembly seats – a situation that is likely to persist in the foreseeable future. But this should not be a cause for alarm as coalition governments, formed by political parties on their own without external meddling, if given space can learn to function and show progress over time.

The process of reconciliation and pathway to political stability are no doubt long and complex but the only option left as evident by the failure of the approach the state has applied in Balochistan for decades. Can we afford another 15 years of this flawed approach while the province and the country bleeds? One can learn from multiple examples on advantages of a reconciliatory approach over a military led solution. It was a political approach, ultimately taken by governments in United Kingdom and Columbia, that brought peace and ended over half-century long militant struggles of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). Most recently, in our neighborhood, after fighting Taliban for 20 years the US government finally realised the futility of its military operation and ended up talking to those it fought for two decades.

For years, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s military leadership had been advocating for a political settlement in Afghanistan. Now it is time to follow this approach in our own backyard. The army chief recently alluded to “bringing our house in order”. Balochistan is one of the many places to start from! One of the legacies the current chief of army can leave behind, is to initiate a process of political reconciliation with separatist groups in Balochistan led by political leaders, youth and women leaders and scholars from the province with support from other national parties and state institutions. A political settlement has a better chance in countering and eliminating the separatist movement, restoring peace, and bringing a legitimate government in the province that can reverse the slide in education, health, and livelihood opportunities for people of Balochistan. Continuing the military operation and an engineered government formula will only accelerate the decline.

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