By Ahmed Saeed
Students from South-Waziristan are raising their voices over what they say is a blow to their academic futures due to the lack of quality internet in their region.
Earlier on April 2, the students staged protests outside the Wana Press Club and Wana Cantonment. Days have passed but the students have seen no change in their situation, their prospects growing dimmer day by day.
Before this, on March 13, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government had announced the closure of all education institutions till the end of the month. With COVID-19 cases continuing to emerge, the closure was then extended to April 5.
However, late March to the first week of April saw a stark and sudden boom in new cases of COVID-19, prompting provincial governments to keep all schools and colleges closed until the tentative date of May 31.
As a result, students, particularly those in university awaiting graduation this year and the next, had to wait an extra year until they would be handed their degrees. Their worries, however, do not end here.
Because the pandemic has had profound effects in destabilizing economies all across the globe, including Pakistan, there is no guarantee that jobs will remain even after the government ends the lock-down and allow businesses to resume operations.
With rising unemployment, students are facing a very real threat. Those who have been hoping to enter the professional world after acquiring their degrees fear that they are heading for ‘career dead ends’.
A DIGITAL SOLUTION
Perhaps anticipating the devastating effects of an ‘academic black hole’, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan instructed schools and universities to go digital.
Conferencing apps are now being used to simulate classroom environments, with teachers conducting lessons or giving lectures to their students completely online. Different institutions are still occupied with devising learning systems by which their students will be able to submit assignments and projects, and conduct fair exams.
But in all its hi-tech solutions, the HEC in its plans conveniently waived aside the very real problem of internet access.
For online classes which include audio and video as well as the need for sustained and steady download speed, students need is a high-speed internet connection, and of excellent quality.
In his address to the National Assembly, Prime Minister Imran Khan stressed on the importance of the inclusion and participation of rural and tribal districts in nation-building. Ironically these regions, to date, are still seriously lagging in terms of all forms of development and progress.
Students in the far-flung tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as South Waziristan and areas in Gilgit-Baltistan do not have high-speed broadband internet, as well as 3G and 4G mobile phone coverage. Worryingly, this situation hasn’t come about solely because of a lack of infrastructure. Internet access has been deliberately limited by the State and security institutions to maintain “peace” in the region.
South Waziristan, in particular, is one area that has seen great political instability and violence in the last two decades.
Despite Operation Zarb-i-Azab, that subsequently led to the eradication of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the region, the threat of militant extremists resurfacing never really abated.
Under these exceptional circumstances, internet provisions remained limited in the region except in cantonments and military stations. It has been rwo years since, and although there has not been much evidence of the TTP recommencing activity in South-Waziristan, high-speed, quality internet for the public is still unavailable in the area.
How and why the military can control internet access is an interesting issue. Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, erstwhile FATA and PATA, and Waziristan have a single telecommunications and internet service provider: Special Communications Organization (SCO), which is owned by the military.
Furthermore, the SCO limits internet provisions to areas located more than 10 kilometers away from the borders with neighboring India and Afghanistan. Settlements within 10 kilometers of a border are bereft of internet access as a security concern – an oft-cited explanation for the lack of access in several areas, many of which don’t even fall within restrictive zones.
VOICES OF DESPERATION
Students in South Waziristan are paying the price for all this. Without any means to attend online classes, and repeated appeals to their institutions’ management to suspend these sessions that only a few can attend, they feel they will be left unheard. The affected students are now forced to stage sit-ins to bring some modicum of attention to their concerns.
“Third and fourth-year students will need an extra year to recuperate their lost credit hours, while our degrees have been delayed by a year,” said Gul Zaman, a student from the tribal belt. “Who will accept a 5-year degree? It might as well be a counterfeit degree.”
Gul Zaman was one of those protesting since April 2. The students’ sit-in was also attended by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) workers and representatives, such as Member of the National Assembly Ali Wazir.
The presence of the PTM is not unexpected – lack of quality internet has disrupted the lives of South-Waziristan’s residents, prompting frustration amongst the public. And with restrictions on movement and activities due to the pandemic, the need for connectivity is now being felt even more painfully, especially by students who were expecting bright futures after completing their education.
However, chances that demands for equal access to the internet for all will be met remain slim, according to the former president of the Pakistan Peshawar High Court Bar Association Latif Afridi.
“Despite existing federal and provincial laws ensuring access to information, the internet is not available in tribal districts,” he explained. “The Army has a degree of control over internet provisions, but it too has reasons to be cautious. This is why, per my understanding, there is no internet access in the region. It is not so easy that by simply writing letters to the relevant authorities internet will become available. It is simply not possible.”
In a sort of compromise with their situation, students are demanding study centers where quality, high-speed internet is available so they may attend classes. However, study centers are no solution to the problem, as Gul Zaman points out, female students will not be able to continue to study that way.
“Female students are faring much worse than everyone else. They had to leave campus grounds when the lock-down was announced, so they no longer have any access to the internet at their homes,” he said. “They are not allowed to leave their homes to attend any study centers with internet access due to the presence of male students. It’s the culture there. They’re all stuck.”
Very recently, Gul Zaman himself had to temporarily move to Dera Ismail Khan to attend online classes. Not everyone, however, has the same means as Gul Zaman to be able to take such a step.
The prevailing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already on-going troubles of Pakistan’s tribal citizens. Whether or not local politics and bureaucracy will take a back seat amidst a human crisis remains to be seen.