May 062008

Education has many functions, but the two most important are: intellectual development and preparation for the job market. Our educational system is deficient in both these areas

While one may argue that social inequality is a fact of life and its pervasiveness is universal, there are serious moral questions about why such a state of social affairs should be allowed to exist.

Inequality is neither natural nor is it written in the fate of each individual or group; in modern times, it can be said that it results from state policies, the nature of politics and traditional social orders founded on elitism and hierarchy in social relations.

What do we really mean by social inequality? This question needs to be settled first before we look at its social roots, and the politics and policies that might be responsible for its occurrence.

In simple terms, it is the lack of equality in any respect—social status, respect, entitlements, income or influence. Equality is one of the fundamental human rights, and every constitution accords it a central place. But why then do we see so much of it around us and why does it continue to persist?

The real reason is that powerful groups that control vital resources have no interest in changing traditional social equations. However changes do occur — they have even in our society — but they originate from an elitist perspective and are often far below the threshold of causing a social revolution.

This is a common incremental approach to social evolution and development that many post-colonial societies have embraced. This kind of change is easily absorbed and the reason it is preferred over more radical approaches is that it maintains inequality, while permitting some sectors of the society upward mobility primarily to meet the interests of dominant classes.

I am not making a case for ideal or absolute equality but one for the need for state intervention to minimise the dehumanising effects of such a model of change.

A common argument one hears is that equality as a right means equality of opportunity; and that the end-result of inequality is due to variable social circumstances, personal qualities and talents of an individual.

The major issue then is the equality of opportunity for growth and development through quality education for all. There is no other way except education through which social and economic mobility is possible at a mass scale. There are always individual exceptions, which cannot be taken as a rule.

Pakistan has failed miserably in providing equal opportunity to children as far as this is concerned. With the collapse of the public educational system, schooling today represents the class structure of the society. Only the poorest of the poor, mostly in rural areas, can aspire to be enrolled in public schools. And because of the poor learning conditions and absent teachers in public schools, their students cannot hope to compete with graduates of English medium schools, even if they are lucky enough to get a pass on their exams. No government elected or functioning under a dictatorial master has addressed the need for quality schooling for Pakistani children.

How have other states addressed this issue? They have done so by mandating quality public schooling for all with a minimum common standard and a uniform curriculum for the first twelve years. This is the route that we must also take.

There are also other interventions through education that we can consider to end social and economic inequalities such as skill-based education, technical colleges and modernisation of the curriculum and disciplines of our universities.

Education has many functions, but the two most important are intellectual development and preparation for the job market. Our educational system is deficient in both these areas.

While education is the key to social levelling, it takes generations of persistent reforms to accomplish it. The glaring economic and social inequality that routinely hits us in our face is also the result of the economic framework of the state that we have followed uncritically.

For more than eight years we have faithfully followed the neo-liberal economic model blindly. A dictatorial government supported by a coterie of collaborators spent its time and energy promoting flashy consumerism without investing in infrastructure, manufacturing or the expansion of our export base.

Yes, the middle class has expanded rapidly, which is the consumer of new goods, but so has the Pakistani upper bourgeoisie. The difference between dictatorship and democracy is that the ordinary people are the last thing on the minds of the dictators, because they don’t owe their power to them. Musharraf’s source of power was the uniform and his collaborators with the social support base.

We really cannot understand the growth of social and economic inequality in Pakistan during the past nine years without understanding the structural issues of power. While the Pakistani state under Musharraf was unwilling to generate resources for social development, the foreign countries scared by the spectre of a failed state and madarassa education taking strong roots, have donated quite generously for education.

But much of that has been wasted because of poor governance and the lack of political will on the part of the state functionaries.

People-centred governments adopt policies of distributive justice, which means they tax the rich heavily and spend on poor sections of the society, including investing in education. Our taxation system is heavily tilted in favour of the rich. Many of the economic activities that the ruling classes are involved in are either not taxed and if they are, taxation is merely symbolic. On top of that, we have one of the poorest tax collection systems with a minuscule population from the formal economy in the net.

Sadly, whatever is spared after defence spending, debt-servicing and funding princely administrative systems has been further siphoned off by networks of corruption. This network has included the civil services, local bodies, contactors and the members of legislative assemblies. Very little has filtered down.

With this democratic dawn, we may raise our expectations with regard to the eradication of social inequality. But politicians often do not have a mission to change our society. However, democracies unlike dictatorship are more sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalised. The dilemma is that they are poorly organised and cannot take political action on their own. The responsibility to raise a voice for them therefore belongs to the media, public intellectuals and the civil society.

On our part we need to make noise, organise peaceful protests and engage in public debates to constantly remind the elected governments that people matter.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 6/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:15 pm

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