The bursting bubble – Dr Ayesha Razzaque


The past few weeks in Karachi saw extraordinary flooding, including in its poshest residential areas administered by the DHA and CBC.

Urban flooding during monsoon season is an annual event, but the destruction this year has few precedents in recent decades. A lot has been written about the reasons (all correct) for the flooding – ranging from climate change, bureaucratic/ political deadlocks, administrative incompetence and/or neglect, a lack of city planning.

Which one is the most damaging depends on whom you ask. Over the years, those who could escaped the misery of Karachi’s neglected neighborhoods by buying their ways to nicer neighborhoods. However, the protective bubble could stave off disaster for only so long.

In the mid-2000s, incomes in Pakistan started rising, putting private school education within the reach of a growing segment of the population. Private schools that once had a single branch in a few major cities, obliged and met this demand by expanding their presence to multiple branches within the same city. What once was the exclusive domain of the elite few was now within the grasp of working professionals and senior bureaucrats and military officers.

The result was an exodus from the best schools and colleges managed by the government and the armed forces. Student vacancies were filled by children of the next-lower socio-economic segment of society, but their parents did not bring the same level of influence and oversight as those who had departed for private schools. Instead of agitating for positive change, those with means escaped the systemic problems of public schools by buying their way out, creating their own protective bubble.

In the Pakistani context, the abandonment of public services by the professional and upper-middle class was not driven solely by inadequacy, but were also driven by cultural economics that confers a higher social status on those availing private services in a race to keep up with the Joneses that is endemic to our region. Ask someone where their kids go to school, and by the second or third sentence you will also learn how much they are paying in school tuition fee.

As time passed and tuition fees of private schools continued to climb but wages stagnated, the recent arrivals began feeling the pinch. What has followed are years of protests that flare up time and again against tuition fee increases seen as excessive. However, by now the conditions of once great public schools have changed so much that going back to them is no longer seen as an option, not only for reasons of educational quality but also for fear of downgrading one’s social status. For many, the protective bubble they had bought themselves is bursting. Their escape from the reality of public schools, thwarted.

This year we witnessed something similar in the healthcare sector. For years, those with means escaped the wretched conditions of public health services by buying better services from private healthcare service providers. But as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the public was trapped between the prohibitive cost of extended-term care by private healthcare providers and the pathetic conditions of most public hospitals. Just like the extended neglect of Karachi’s civic administration and services, the deterioration of public education and healthcare services came back to affect everybody.

The consistent takeaway is that try as you may to take yourself out of the market for public services, you cannot remain immune from wider decline forever. If you can count yourself among the privileged, or are educated and informed on an issue, not only is it an ethical responsibility to continue to lend your voice to fellow citizens’ just causes, it is also in your selfish self-interest.

I do not wish to disparage social media activism because it has its place, but engagement is fickle, amorphous, divided among cliques, and easily displaced by whatever is tomorrow’s trend. What we need more of is organized and persistent lobbying and campaigning for issues and demand the media take them up and keep them in the public consciousness until elected representatives and public servants are obligated to act. Would you not rather have evening news shows talk about issues that affect most citizens, rather than weeks of continuous political Kabuki that has no bearing on most people’s lives?

A news report from 2016 conservatively estimated the number of NGOs operating in Pakistan between 100,000 and 150,000. I have seen or heard of hundreds of NGOs that work in the education and child development sector. How is it then that in the ongoing debate about the Single National Curriculum (SNC), which directly pertains to education, their raison detre, almost all of them are absent from the public debate? Why are we only hearing only a handful of largely unaffiliated voices?

Even opposition parties’ politicians are either on board with the SNC (PPP in Sindh) or unconcerned for the most part. While the issue has received some media coverage, it is only a trickle compared to the breathless non-stop coverage of political soap opera stories.

If the majority of these hundreds of thousands of NGOs cannot be counted on to advocate on the public’s behalf, it falls to ordinary citizens to organize and persist in following up on issues related to public policy. For example, parents of private school children have organized, appeared in courts, lobbied, and actively engaged in advocacy. Some of the research reports these citizen groups have produced and published online are actually better than what some NGOs produce. A recent positive example that springs to mind was last month, when Cambridge botched its results and voices of students and parents compelled it to review its grade prediction.

The SNC will not reduce the inequitable access to opportunities for the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as is claimed, but civic engagement and advocacy for the good of all, particularly by those who seem to have the least to gain by it, might. If you think you have no dog left in the fight because you exited public services, you are wrong, because what happens to most of us, affects all of us.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.