Just like most things, the prices of books has gone through the roof in the past year-and-a-half. This has made education an even harder challenge for Pakistanis. Faizan Warraich investigates why the prices have gone up and what the stakeholders think should now happen.

he last one year has been a tumultuous one for Pakistanis, with the continuously rising prices of essential commodities making it increasingly difficult to make expenses in equality with income. He effects of price hike have crept into the education sector as well, with text books and stationery items also seeing an unprecedented increase in quoted prices.Akhter Ali, 42, is the owner of College Book Depot, one of oldest book stores in Lahore’s famous Urdu Bazaar that is without doubt the country’s largest booksellers’ market. “We are running from pillar to post to make sales go up, but all in vain. The number of customers has fallen to an all-time low in recent months. We are living in difficult times,” Akhtar said while talking to Academia Magazine.However, he was still optimistic about the future of publishing industry in Pakistan. “If publishers sit together and chalk out a strategy to get out of this situation, the business of books would thrive once again, I guess. No nation can make progress without education and I believe the government will take notice of the situation and come to the publishing industry’s rescue,” he was of the view.

Books prices have seen an average increase of between 40 to 50 percent in the past one-and-a-half years and leading publishers expect the government to offer a tax subsidy on paper

The high inflation has affected the publishing industry badly. Books prices have seen an average increase of between 40 to 50 percent in the past one-and-a-half years. Leading personalities of the publishing industry expect the government to offer a tax subsidy on paper so that the market may stabilize and the price spiral be controlled. In discussions with leading publishers, educationist, activists and parents to conduct an in-depth analysis of the book-price-hike issue, Academia Magazine found that most stakeholders had the government to blame. 

 

Check, Mate

Anjuman-e-Tajiran Urdu Bazaar President Khalid Pervaiz told Academia Magazine that the “system was not working”. “There are no checks and balances on our industry. In just one year, inflation has run riot with our industry. At least a 33 percent hike has been observed in the prices of notebooks and books,” he said.“These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg of the crisis and uncertainty our industry has been facing. There has been a 33 percent flat increase in prices of stationery items, including pencils, erasers, sharpeners, geometry boxes etc. The list of items affected is endless,” said Perviaz, who has been leading the traders union in Urdu Bazaar for the past four years. 

The number of customers has fallen to an all-time low in recent months. We are living in difficult times, says Akhter Ali, owner of one of oldest book stores in Lahore’s Urdu Bazaar

He said while holding a book in his hand, “This is not just a book. It is a story of hard labor, printing process and the precise use of ink, glue and paper. Sadly, we traders see no ray of hope in the times ahead.”“The core issue is certainly the absence of a comprehensive policy for our industry. At present, education is becoming difficult and very unaffordable. As far as I think, the foremost thing that needs addressing is the corruption in Punjab Text Book Board. If merit prevails and deserving people get permission to import paper on cheaper rates to print quality books, things will get better. The problem is that incompetent people in the government have no idea of how to run the most important industry in our country,” he claimed.

 

Rhetoric?

Punjab Human Rights Minister Ejaz Alam told Academia Magazine that free education was the right of all students and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf led provincial government had taken notable steps to create an environment where all students received education.“Book price hike is a scenario where students may face difficulty in buying expensive books. The PTI government believes in facilitating students to get them educated and be a productive part of society,” he added. But Punjab Non-Formal Basic Education Minister Raja Rashid Hafeez explained the positives of his department, as it was providing free of cost education, including course books, helping books, drawing books and stationery items to students.

Anjuman-e-Tajiran Urdu Bazaar President Khalid Pervaiz says the system is not working. There are no checks and balances on the industry

He said in times when families had to allocate a separate budget for their children’s education, the Non-Formal Basic Education Department was providing free education to the underprivileged students, including laborers’ children, gypsy children and even the transgender community.Just like the other ministers, Punjab Women Development Department Minister Ashifa Riaz Fatiyana also could not explain the reasons behind the price hike, but did stress on the importance of women’s education for the promotion and prosperity of our society.“When a woman gets education then she later becomes a source of inspiration for her children also,” she said. The minister said multiple projects were being executed for the promotion of education among women and free of cost education was one such initiative of Women Development Department.

 

Challenges

Commenting on issue of price hike of books, Idara Teleem-o-Agahi CEO Baela Raza Jamil said, “The problem of books price hike is not be evaluated alone. There are multiple other elements involved. The white-collar class or middle class in urban areas enroll their children in private schools for better education but the prices of school bags, books, stationery and food canteens take the expenses to new heights. Around 30 to 40 percent of the disposable income of any middle class family goes to education, children’s uniforms, school fees, stationery and pocket money. With increased prices of all these items, children and their parents are equally suffering.”

Helping books, extra coaching burden have taken up the educational cost for parents The world is going paperless and moving to latest gadgets, says Kashif Mirza, president of All Pakistan Private Schools Association

Baela said one of most important aspects “that no one is really talking is about is the psychological impact on children of not being able to buy expensive books, stationery items due to limited budgets of their parents and the immense peer pressure they face for the same. It also raises mental health challenges for children and they start feeling alienated from their friends and the society”. “The list goes on,” she added, “as private coaching and tuitions also put extra burden on parents. The outcome from the current situation is that the government should come up with a way out for the publishing industry and businesses related to it. The government can show what is important and less important for it by subsidizing and facilitating the industry”.Noted Educationist Arfa Syeda Zahra was of the view that when “the whole system is not working properly and when poor are not getting enough food to eat, making cosmetic policies for publishers in order to provide relief to the students is irrelevant. The whole system is not on the path towards progress”.

Failure

All Pakistan Private Schools Association President Kashif Mirza said unfortunately the education system was failing as a whole, and ‘the system’ had been waging a war of “number game” on students.“Students are under immense stress and instead of guiding them on good behavior and morals to be good human beings, all we are focused on is numbers, just numbers,” he stressed.“Helping books, extra coaching burden have taken up the educational cost for parents. We should learn from Sweden, Finland, UK and Japan who are gradually doing away with ‘examophobia’ and focusing on field experience,” Mirza added. “In Finland, only 20 hours a week is allowed on books and rest of the time is based on assignments. We are a country where 2,500 PhDs are jobless. We need revolutionary steps and just do not need to produce a bookish generation.”“The slogan of uniform education system is a kind of delusion by the government. The international recognition of weight of the books is 1/10th. For example, if a student’s weight is 25kg then he or she should not carry a bag of more than 2.5kg, but we have seen heavy bags even in preschool. The world is going paperless and moving to latest gadgets. The Punjab Textbook Board has no will and they are working on mere slogans. They should come up with comprehensive policy to lower down the prices of books so education is provided given to all classes in Pakistan irrespective of their social status,” Mirza concluded.

Salman Abid, an analyst and education activist, said the government had a responsibility to provide a business model where publishers should use quality paper and print quality books on cheaper rates. “I believe book reading culture is not dying in our society, all we need is to facilitate the young generation to get them education with no financial hurdles,” he said.

On his part, Punjab Education Minister Dr Murad Raad said the government was going to make sure that the entire process (of book publishing) was transparent.“We will go to every extent to help reduce the cost. If the problems are not solved through local resources, we will opt for importing material from outside the country to ensure transparency and make the books available at cheaper rates in the market,” he added.But the minister appeared to forget that the dollar-rupee parity has gone through a major shockwave in the past one year, and that has been precisely one of the many reasons the prices of books and other items have gone up. Incidentally, that is also what the publishers have been demanding all along – subsidies to import cheaper paper given the rise in the value of dollar and the resultant increase in the import bill. Only time can tell – and tell it will – what policies the government adopts to help the book publishing industry sustain these troubled times and ease the rising burden of educational expense on parents. But one thing is as certain as death and taxes, getting quality education in this country is only going to get harder than it already is.

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