For a first in Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s (AJK) Bagh district, students celebrated World Book Day on Saturday.
Inclusive of a book fair and speech competitions for schoolchildren, the event served both its intended purposes – to help foster the habit of book reading among students and to nurture in them a sense of normalcy six years after the state was jolted by a major earthquake.
Students from 36 schools rebuilt by US Agency for International Development (USAID) after the earthquake took part in the event. The schools have been rebuilt under USAID’s $130 million Pakistan Earthquake Reconstruction and Recovery Programme (PERRP) that was launched in 2006.
Of the 61 school buildings planned for Bagh district, USAID has completed the construction of 36, while 20 are under construction; groundbreaking of the remaining five will be held soon.
Each school includes a library that has been stocked with books bought by donations from the district’s local communities. With their help, the 36 rebuilt schools have over 11,000 books, “which is quite an achievement,” said Tariq Salim of PERRP.
Following the 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2005, AJK was devastated. The severity of the earthquake, coupled with poor construction, had a total death toll of over 80,000 -including around 17,000 schoolchildren of AJK – as majority of the government school buildings were razed to the ground.
Seven years on, the horrors of the day are still fresh in the minds of the students. While they were appreciative of the aid agency’s efforts, they were equally critical of the state government for playing a minimal role in the reconstruction.
Fakhra Batool, a student of grade 10 of Government High School Chattar, said, “We appreciate USAID for reconstructing our school building. But our labs have no computers and the government is indifferent to our needs.”
She also expressed concern over the lack of transport facilities, especially for students who come from far-off areas.
Since the AJK government allocates 80 per cent of the budget to recurring expenses and only 20 per cent to development, it is no surprise that it could not rebuild even a single school, said Farooq Akber, a local.
“But building schools is one thing and ensuring that they are functional is another.” The government is not even able to operate the schools properly, he added.
“The standard of these schools is evident by the fact that their teachers choose to send their own children to private schools,” Akbar said.
Another local, Roshan Khan, lamented, “We are not victims of the earthquake, but of the commission mafias who built the structures with substandard material.”
Recalling the horrors of the earthquake, headmistress of Government High School Chattar II, Rifat Mumtaz said three of her students were crushed under a falling beam. She was grateful that the new school buildings were earthquake-proof.
All school buildings were designed to meet internationally recognised standards for earthquake-prone areas and provide access for the disabled, said Salim.
The programme is being implemented with the cooperation of Pakistan’s Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority.
The World Book Day event was organised by USAID, in collaboration with Pakistan Reconstruction and Recovery Programme and the communities of Bagh district.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2012.