Rural Sindh agenda

Dawn Newspaper

SINDH Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah is off to a relatively good start. He began by removing security barriers outside Chief Minister House in Karachi. Then he ordered government employees to show up at office on time. And he’s mingled with the public on a few occasions making him appear more accessible. As Mr Shah proceeds with his plan for Sindh, he must develop a concrete agenda for the neglected rural areas of the province. Here are some key issues he should address.

First, the chief minister should assess the state of Sindh’s village children. Most kids spend their days playing barefoot on trash heaps without any form of constructive engagement. These children must be brought into classrooms and initiated in drawing, block-building and simple activities that are enjoyable and instructive.

To do this, Mr Shah must consider the state of government schools. In Sindh, just 23 per cent of schools have electricity, water, toilets and boundary walls compared with 93pc in Punjab, according to Alif Ailaan, an organisation focusing on education. Mr Shah must urgently provide these basic facilities and ensure remote schools located in agricultural fields are open and teachers are attending. Most critically, where schools are running to schedule, he must ensure that the quality of learning is monitored and improved. This can be done in small steps eg most high school students in Sindh can’t name Pakistan’s president; if teachers are directed to spend just 15 minutes a day reading the newspaper to them, they would quickly become well informed.

Sindh’s CM must meet the rural challenge.

Then, he should assess the performance of government healthcare units across villages where patients are handled without respect and dignity and medical supplies run out before the month is over. Doctors manning these units must be made responsible for creating effective referral systems to taluka- and district-level government hospitals so that the poor are not burdened with debts as they run between private clinics. Likewise, Mr Shah must crack down on city doctors who don’t attend to government duties, forcing patients to come to their private clinics where they overprescribe drugs to receive commissions.

For preventive health, Mr Shah must review the state of village sanitation, build simple, inexpensive wastewater treatment units and ensure district governments use facilities provided to them to sweep village streets, dispose of garbage and spray open sewerage ponds to reduce malaria cases. Villagers must also be given awareness through community meetings arranged by government dispensaries on the causes of hepatitis-C.

Likewise, many rural homes are without a toilet; instead of giving hundreds of thousands of rupees from the government zakat fund to village influentials who rarely pass them on to the intended beneficiaries, if the government spent just Rs6,000 per home, every family would have a toilet. Farmers have always been victims of health risks because of the unprotected use of chemicals and pesticides that burn their hands and damage their lungs. Just a pair of rubber gloves, a surgical mask and a little awareness can resolve this issue.

The other major bane is scarce electricity. In many villages, people can use fans and lights for only three hours a day. A participatory mechanism whereby families contribute a share towards a simple solar home kit that costs less than Rs15,000 would provide immediate relief and improve living standards.

Then, there is the village youth, disenfranchised and an easy prey for the unproductive tea shops and dangerous gambling dens in the province. These young people should be given simple skills training such as driving and mobile phone repair that don’t require cumbersome courses. Clo­sely monitored small interest-free loans of no more than Rs20,000 will help them set up vegetable stands, confectionery cabins and barber shops. If nothing else they should be engaged as community volunteers to take ownership of their villages and help the government in the process of development.

Finally, government health workers must conduct awareness sessions for women on the importance of home cleanliness, children’s hygiene and better child rearing. Women should also be given some basic training to help modernise traditional handicrafts and make them income generating. This will help them end their financial dependence on men embroiled in drugs and gambling and provide a way for them to improve their children’s future.

None of this can be achieved in isolation. Local people in rural Sindh have for too long been separated from their own development. Mr Shah must involve the poorest and most disenfranchised in the progress of their community. They must be made responsible for monitoring the state of their schools and dispensaries and hold government workers accountable. This transfer of decision-making from the landlord-politicians of the area to landless farmers and construction workers will automatically bring about revolutionary empowerment and give Mr Shah effective and involved partners in development.

The writer is a journalist and founder of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust.

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