Last year, when Sindh asked its teachers to visit biometric verification centers to confirm their employment and submit employment files for digitization, some showed up from as far as Dubai. Others responded with violence. In Larkana, a PPP stronghold, teachers destroyed all the computers and servers in the center. The system had to be reconstituted and re-started in Karachi.
Sindh’s paper- and file-based system of maintaining employment records has been easy to manipulate. The provincial payroll has included thousands of people who were not employed by the ministry because they used photocopied employment letters, got illegal promotions by bribing clerics, or were ghosts living far away and with other full-time jobs. Relatives could cover for the missing employee in school or just to pick up paychecks.
Today, the digitization process is complete but it is only the first step in getting to an education system where teachers are found in schools.
Education Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho has said that 40 per cent of schools in his province are closed and 40 percent of teachers are ghosts. There are 144,000 teachers in Sindh. Pechuho’s estimate would put ghost teachers at 60,000.
A district official doing an informal survey one morning in Jacobabad district in Northern Sindh reported 70 percent of schools to be closed. But there is no way to know the actual status of a school on any given day without a monitoring system such as the one that exists in Punjab and KP.
“It’s the bad teachers versus the government,” says Nadeem Hussain who is part of Sindh’s Reform Support Unit.
But Sindh cannot even fire missing teachers. They can only stop salaries.
Salaries for 3,000 teachers who did not show up for verification were stopped. At salaries that range from 15,000 to 100,000 rupees per month according to Alif Ailaan, this is significant saving for Sindh.
But one staffer estimates that there are 30,000 to 40,000 ghost teachers in Sindh. He surmises that many used connections or bribes to keep their employment.
Those working on reforms hope that the numbers will increase as the school monitoring system is deployed. Sindh recently hired 225 monitors and equipped them with a motorcycle, and a biometric verification machine. These monitors will visit schools in 15 districts every month to check if they are open, if teachers are present, and how many students are in school. Another 170 monitors will be hired for Sindh’s remaining 14 districts.
“The biometric attendance data will be reconciled with the accountant general’s records since he issues paychecks. Salaries for absent teachers will not be released. If the teacher comes and works, only then are we liable to pay him,” promises Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, Chief Programme Manager of the Reform Support Unit.
But it may, quite literally, be a battle. In November 2015, a protest over teachers’ salaries in Karachi ended with water-cannons, teargas, and a police baton-charge. But teachers at the protest could not even spell “primary” when quizzed.
Is the political will there?
Pechuho is described by staff as “old but techie.” They say he is trying to create an education system that he can control from his iPad. But it’s not clear that he has the political software to make the new systems work.
Pechuho is the brother-in-law of PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari. That makes him powerful and has probably kept him in office for three years.
But according to one analyst, “The biggest hindrance to reform is the PPP itself. Teachers in Sindh are not really teachers, they are political workers. For an MPA, it’s important that his workers get paid. If they get fired, the MPA’s political future might be at stake.” Attempts to fire teachers are often reversed by the chief minister who is under pressure from MPAs.
Teachers also enjoy protection from the courts. According to Umbreen Arif, the World Bank officer in charge of Sindh and Balochistan: “Teachers are rarely dismissed from service. There is a Supreme Court ruling that salaries should not be stopped till disciplinary proceedings are complete because the family of the employee should not suffer. District education officials have told me that they rarely stop the salary of an absentee teacher because of the ruling.”
Bureaucratic leadership, in the form of a strong education secretary, is critical. But correcting Sindh’s historic misuse of public resources also requires political leadership from the top.