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A lesson in getting on, and getting things done

Bullets on the international border, and a war of words over a “terror boat” both symbolise and demonstrate a fraught India-Pakistan relationship. Not surprisingly, ‘track two’ and ‘People to People contact’, phrases crafted in happier times, have a hollow ring these days.

And, yet, a group of Pakistanis is travelling to Delhi for a landmark anniversary – release of the 10th edition of India’s Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) on Tuesday.

It is based on an annual survey, across 577 rural districts and a staggering 350,000 households,mostly by volunteers. Pioneered by leading education non-governmental organisation (NGO) Pratham, it assesses, among other things, children’s ability to read well and do basic arithmetic. It is thanks to Aser that the country has learnt, to cite only one shaming statistic, that only 47 per cent of children in Standard V can read a Standard II text. Few would disagree with Rukmini Banerji, who leads Aser at Pratham, when she says this decade-old initiative has made Indians “look beyond schooling and enrolment to whether children are actually learning.”

What is little known in India is that Aser has also changed the conversation around education in Pakistan. As Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA), the organisation that took the Aser model to Pakistan, tells the story: “Ten thousand volunteers knocking on doors to talk about education are cutting through decades of inertia and complacency.” With its sample size of 90,000-plus households exceeding by about 15,000 the official household survey, Aser Pakistan has also become a valuable source of data for the government, Jamil said in a phone interview from Lahore.

If Aser India is marking a milestone this year, so is Aser Pakistan. A team from Pratham was present when Pakistan’s planning and development minister released its fifth report last week, at the Planning Commission in Islamabad. It found itself interacting with government ministers, and discussing education on prime time TV. “There was no competitive element to the discussion,” said Sanjay Kumar, a member of the team. “I had to correct the misconception that learning outcomes are much better in India than in Pakistan.”

Pakistan was the first foreign country to adopt the Aser model, which has since travelled to Africa and Mexico, and the only one to give it the same name. This transfer of intellectual capital happened organically, without bilateral trappings, declaratory statements or even a structured relationship between the two organisations involved.

“Since this was a diffused and decentralised effort, no one could object,” said Banerji. “Also, we were hitting on a new problem that gets people worked up everywhere: If children are going to school, why are they not learning?”

Jamil first heard about Aser in 2006, almost in passing, and attended a workshop in Jaipur to find more. She immediately felt the model would be useful for Pakistan, since it was beset by “huge gaps” in the educational assessment of children due to intermittent donor activity, and “a lack of imagination on the part of government”.

A combination of willpower and goodwill saw her team secure Indian visas, and enabled Indians to make multiple visits to Pakistan, from 2008 onwards, to explain to a wide cross-section of Pakistanis how Aser was executed . “Each time a new high commissioner is appointed,” said Jamil, “We pay homage.”

Banerji, among the first to visit, felt “overwhelmed by the interest and the warmth”. Pratham’s people interacted with representatives of grass roots organisations, university students and rural families in villages, largely similar to those in Indian Punjab, down to habitation patterns and children’s learning levels.

When the Indians and Pakistanis argued, it was not about politics but budgeting. “We kept halving their estimates,” recalled Banerji, with a smile. She notes the Pakistanis, as indeed other countries, have retained the spirit of the programme, keeping it both cost-effective and citizen-led.

Jamil, who has sat through ‘Track Two’ and ‘Track Three’ India-Pakistan events, said this interface was different: “The timbre is right, there is no one-upmanship, in fact there is a code of conduct – and education unites us. Many young people are involved, which is inspiring.”

Pratham has gone on to share with Jamil and her group, its instructional programme in Urdu and they, meanwhile, have introduced Pratham to a new donor, Dubai Cares, which has given the Indian NGO $ 5.3 million for three years.

From a restricted survey in 2009, Aser Pakistan has grown into a nationwide one, covering 144 rural districts and 21 urban centres. If Indian volunteers traverse snowy Kashmir or rain-lashed Tamil Nadu, their Pak counterparts travel in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where radicals have burnt down schools. While Jamil did not underestimate these challenges for education, or the ominous message of the Peshawar tragedy (“they could have chosen any soft target but they chose a school”), she also stressed a groundswell of support for educational initiatives, including among mainstream politicians.

Aser Pakistan draws government much more into its activities than Aser India. “Yet, no one has ever said,” said Jamil, “that my team and I are taking ideas from India, and this must be banned.” By her lively account, even intelligence operatives who came to watch Indians at workshops left tamely – and with participation certificates.

At the Indian end, intelligence personnel were astonished when Parveen Sayyed and her colleagues said they were going to Pakistan “to give training”, and grilled them for a couple of hours, she recalls, on the bus from Delhi to Lahore in 2011.

Sayyed started as a modest balwadi teacher with Pratham in the Mumbai slums and went on to develop a 45-day child-centred Urdu teaching programme, using flashcards and other learning aids. Her career took a new turn when Pratham dispatched her to Pakistan to help start a pilot using similar methods.

Over four visits to Lahore and Multan, she interacted not only with staff of the Pakistani NGO but government teachers, too, and trained master-trainers. “My family did not want to me to go,” said Sayyed. “I was worried, too. But I learnt something from my trips, which is, don’t believe what you see on TV.”

Pak officials sometimes questioned Sayyed but her answers found quick acceptance. Once, she recalls, while she was reporting at a police station, they asked her curiously, “There is education here, too. Why does anyone need you?”

“We have a method,” Sayyed replied simply, “To help children who can’t get ahead.”

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