Predicament of Islamabad’s private schools

WEB DESK: The city of Islamabad hasn’t grown along the lines conceived by its idealistic master planner. It was supposed to be a kind of gated compound with at-the-most quarter of a million residents living in clearly marked plebian and praetorian sectors.

That in less than half a century its population would grow four to five times, compromising the fine lines the master planner had drawn was nobody’s prognosis.

And as the population multiplied so did pressure on public service utilities and basic necessities, including the much sought-after educational institutions. The ones the Islamabad master plan had visualized soon became insufficient, both in terms of capacity and locations. Unlike other cities, the city of government servants had to have more educational institutions to cater to its residents’ first preference of giving education to their children. There were more boys and girls who should go to school and that schools should be within a reasonable distances from residences. But that was not the case with most of the government schools, and hence the massive growth of private schools in residential areas.

It was in violation of the master plan’s firm dictation against non-conforming use of residences. But nobody cared about this prohibition, nor did the controlling authority, in this case the Capital Development Authority. Agri-farms in the vicinity of the city, for example, presents a sardonic comment on our approach to city planning: in agri-farms grew up pleasure palaces instead of pumpkins and popcorns. Now that the Supreme Court has strongly objected to non-conforming use of residential housings the CDA is set about clearing the mess.

But it is going to be both problematic and painful, as running businesses are being put out of business, offices are being sealed and private schools are asked to vacate their premises. Given that there are some 300 private schools housed in residences with nearly 100,000 students the question is where these schools should go now.

The CDA says once the stay order issued by the Islamabad High Court is vacated “we will seal the schools”. But Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali, who has asked the FIA to find out who allowed these schools in residential areas – without realising that an Act of parliament passed on March 16, 2013 authenticated the existence of private schools wherever these were – is a bit accommodating. He wonders, “without any alternate plan, how the shifting of over 350 private schools from residential areas is possible”. Finding alternative is certainly a huge challenge, but as they say, where there is a will there is a way.

The CDA may be asked to explore alternatives on along four possibilities. One, some of the plots earlier allotted to schools are being misused. These should be retrieved and given to new allottees. Two, some of the federal schools, particularly in F sectors, have huge vacant land in their possession in the name of playgrounds, but not being used for that purpose. These should be allotted to new allottees. Three, the mountain streams that pass through almost all the residential sectors have their natural courses which are unbanked and quite wide. By putting them through broad enough concrete channels to take their flooding during the rainy season and not more than that, large tracts of land can be reclaimed and allotted to the uprooted schools.

Presently, quite a few residents have also occupied, on or without rent to the CDA, wide open spaces between their houses and the natural beds of mountain streams. Four, there are still quite a few residential plots lying vacant whose owners are either missing or in denial of possession. These too can be spared for private schools. While substitute sites are made available the concerned authorities must see to it that the cost the new owners are to incur is adequately subsidised and that sufficient time is given for shifting. And as it is done the allotments should not be on first-come-first-basis but in line with their registration. Whatever the legal strength of the argument against non-conforming use of residential housing the fact must be accepted that these private schools are dire need of people.

And, also that these are properly registered with Private Educational Institutions Regularity Authority (PEIRA), set up under law. One wonders how come the PEIRA was ignorant of the prohibition against misuse of residences and the CDA remained unconcerned as some two thousand residences including schools under its watch were being used for purposes other than permitted. You simply cannot close down some three hundred schools in Islamabad.

Source: Business Recorder