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Affordable, but at what cost?
by Irfan

Published today in Pakistan Today's Sunday Magazine. The complete magazine may be downloaded at review+54+for+web [huge file tho 26 MB] or read online here

When an over- loaded bus carrying 102 school-children from a Faisalabad institution plunged down a deep ravine on the curving motorway near the Kallar Kahar hills, the entire nation was stunned by the tragedy. 38 lives–including the school principal, the driver and the conductor of the bus–were lost in this accident. And as is the casewhen one is confronted with the helplessness that follows such tragedy, most people’s reaction was to offer prayers, spare a thought for the families of the deceased and then move on with their lives, albeit going about ordinary affairs a tad bit more subdued. Yet, this grisly accident was to a large extent preventable, which is why we must not write it off as a fated accident, or just another cruel twist of fate. Providence cannot be held solely responsible f or this incident as human actions had an equally large part to play. It is our responsibility to try and understand the reasons this happened and channelise our efforts into ensuring that such an incident never happens again. We owe it to the children who attend similar so-called Affordable Private Schools (APS), and are at a similar or even greater risk.

Immediately following the accident, the DCO Faisalabad was seen on the TV ordering an inquiry, which would identify the culprits and punish them. Without doubt, he will successfully apportion the blame by finding himself some suitable ‘culprits’ who he’ll parade before the nation before punishing, and then speedily close the case with a secret sigh of relief. And then we will forget all about this unfortunate incident until another such bus overturns and more children [and adults] die. After which the same cycle of events will be repeated ad infinitum.
We live in a country in which over 40% schools are, like the school in question, private schools. This school seems to fit the profile of what some policy analysts call the Affordable Private Schools (APS)or the Low Fees Private Schools(LFPS). Glowing tributes are paid to these schools for being efficient and delivering more bang for the buck. Well, here is one such deadly bang just delivered to the families of the deceased children. Many influential policy pundits argue vehemently against regulating these schools. These policy specialist believe that regulating transactions between free and autonomous agents in a free market is not a good idea as the market logic should hold supreme. But as is evident in this case, the market clearly failed in ensuring that adequate safety standards are followed by both the private schools and the private bus service. This is just one gory example of the absence of regulation in both the affordable public school (APS) and the affordable transport service (ATS) markets.

Let us take a look at the ATS first. In Pakistan, there are also several not so affordable services, such as the Daewoo Bus Service (DBS) and other similar services. DBS is an expensive service that – from my personal experience– is superior even to those old Greyhounds in the United States. Personally, I am not in favour of nationalizing all public transport - If I can afford it, I should be able to travel in whatever manner I wish. The problem is that this ‘choice’ is a mere illusion for less advantaged people. The only choice they have is between X service and Y service, both of which have absolutely no incentive to maintain safety standards as long as they offer cheap prices and take on more travellers who they know can’t afford safer options. And this is precisely where the importance of regulation is so palpa ble.

That we live in a society where safety and security are dependent on ones income bracket is appalling. For the majority of the country, living in a country where one can be assured of these very basic rights is akin to living in a utopia. A utopia where there is a detailed list of safety standards, and someone with the constitutional authority to enforce them. A utopia which doesn’t permit people to drive without a properly earned driving license. Where car manufacturers, regardless of the wealth of the consumers, need to adhere to the safety standards. Where automobiles are recalled if a safety hazard was discovered in them even after they were sold. Where consumers are compensated if the producer of a good [or provider of a service] is unable to deliver the goods/services in ways that protected their legal rights.

In Pakistan, however, safety is a luxury. As one of my aviator friends remarked to me today: “Just by seeing pictures of the bus wreckage, we can easily make out it was not a big collision, the bus [simply] overturned at high speed. Since the bus shell was not designed properly with no roll cage, no seat belts, no safety structure, the hapless occupants got crushed... Bus construction is a cottage industry in Lahore and Gujranwala, which is light years away from the very basic modern standards of safety and technology - all it takes here is some iron bars and a welding torch to build a bus. No license regulation, no driver tests, no safety instructions.” All this rings eerily true yet this is not an issue, which is being discussed by the powers that be in the provincial and federal capitals of Pakistan. They are too busy hunting for a ‘culprit,’ a scapegoat, if you will, who will most probably be the school proprietor or the bus owner or some other from the same set/class of people.

Incidentally, I recently discovered the existence of a Pakistan Automobile Manufacturers Association. Visit its website and you will find it filled with the pictures of the four-wheelers that its esteemed members produce. The association consists of 18 members and includes, among others, companies such as Pak Suzuki Motors, Indus Motor Co., Honda Atlas, Sigma Motors, Hinopak motors, and Ghandara Nissan. This website of PAMA has a page on safety and quality standards for the two wheelers and the three wheelers. Yes, that’s all, only for the two and three wheelers! Apart from the PAMA, Pakistan also has a publicly funded authority to enforce quality standards. It’s called Standards and Quality Control Authority (SQCA) and it works directly under the Ministry of Science and Technology. But it is not clear if this authority exercises any jurisdiction on the cottage industry of body makers that makes the ATS in Pakistan ticks. My hunch is that this cottage industry has never appeared on the agenda of regulators such as SQCA. I wonder exactly what, if anything, is on their agenda. This is what happens when a country does not have a robust public domain which does its job, which is first and foremost, the protection of public interest. Why should we not blame PAMA or SQCA or, broadly speaking, the state itself for not adequately protecting the public interest, and hold them directly responsible for the loss of 38 precious lives. The PM, the president, the CM and the governor of Punjab should go a step further than simply expressing their grief. They should openly acknowledge the failure of the state in the latest tragedy

Let us now turn to the Affordable Public Schools. The ATS market is perhaps hardly different from the other ‘dynamic market’ that many of our economist friends advocate as a response to the formidable problem of universalising education in Pakistan, the Affordable Private Schools (APS) market. While they may be right and the APS may very well be one such solution to the problem, they too are, like the bus body makers of Pakistan, unregulated entities. They may be producing slightly better results in math, science, and reading but are they also protecting public interest within the realm of education? It is very difficult to answer this question in the affirmative when we know that the poor parents have a similar sham choice that customers have when boarding a bus run by an affordable transport provider. This gory acciden t was certainly a result of a transaction between these two [unregulated] private providers in the ‘free’ market, the ATS and the APS.