Quality education needs better Urban Planning: The Story of Azam Basti


Quality education needs better Urban Planning: The Story of Azam Basti

Originally published on 31 January 2022 by UNDP

In lieu of Pakistan’s rapid urban population growth, this article highlights UNDP and IBA Karachi’s research initiative, which points towards the urgent need for improved urban planning, water and sanitation, housing, and public transport to build resilient urban communities in informal settlements, such as Karachi’s Azam Basti, and ensure access to quality education.​

The streets of Azam Basti in Karachi are punctuated by a whirlwind of food wrappers flying around in the winter breeze. The day ushers in a diverse soundscape - the frequent buzz of passing motorbikes, the accompanying splashes from nearby puddles, and the clamour of people ready to start their day.

Currently, Pakistan has 75.6 million people living in urban areas. Due to a growing population and rural-urban migration, by 2030 almost 41 percent of Pakistan’s population will be living in cities. At the same time, however, the urban population growth has not been matched by planned urbanization, resulting in the formation of informal urban settlements and a shortage of urban services available to the people.

This was evident as we stepped out onto the field to conduct research for IBA Karachi and UNDP Pakistan’s collaboration on the project, 'Access to Justice & Human Rights for the Development and Resilience of Informal Urban Communities'.

Standing in the middle of Azam Basti, we stopped in front of a stained blue gate. Faded text reading ‘Assisi English School’ was painted on one corner of the building. We met Mr. Amoon Akram, the principal of St. Francis Assisi English Secondary School, who has been at the school for the last 30 years.

“I keep telling the students that education is the key to escaping poverty. I am proud to have students from various ethnicities and religions learning together. You can see a Punjabi Christian child sitting alongside a Pashtun Muslim student,” says Amoon Akram.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education worldwide, and Pakistan is no exception. The pandemic has forced 930,000 children out of school, with learning poverty increasing from 75% to 79% (Development Advocate Pakistan, April 2021). In addition, around 42 million learners have faced disturbed schooling in Pakistan (UNICEF, 2020). Despite this, Amoon shares how the students have done exceptionally well throughout the uncertainty the last academic year brought with it.

Amoon mentions how the students come from various parts of Azam Basti and nearby areas. Even if he reduces the school fee, the lack of a safe and reliable transport network prevents parents from sending children to school, as they now must also bear the cost of private Rickshaw or taxi services to reach the school. 

In Azam Basti, not only have the number of students dwindled, but the number of teachers has also declined sharply during the pandemic. Upon enquiring on the strength of teachers at the school, Amoon says, “Previously we had 15-16 teachers, but now 6-7 remain who teach in two shifts – the morning and afternoon shifts”. He reveals how it has become difficult to pay the teachers, considering the high number of dropouts from the school. 

We took a flight of stairs and landed on the first storey of the school where a combined open-air class was underway. A classroom with paint peeling off the walls and without a board for the teacher to write on, had some children sitting on the bare floor. “The first two rows have Grade 3 students while the remaining two are grade 4 students,” says Ayesha, who was teaching Mathematics but also teaches English. “Coming to school is so much fun,” says Adriel, a Grade 5 student who does not enjoy Math class, but loves art. “I want to create art when I grow up.” 

Nestled between two tall residential buildings, the dilapidated condition of the classrooms spoke of a bigger issue that plagues not only Azam Basti but also the megacity that houses it: poor urban planning and management.

The unstable roofs made up of wooden panels and steel sheets is a temporary fix that requires annual reinforcements after the monsoon rains; the lack of light bulbs in the classrooms limit teaching to daytime only; and the crooked benches and tables hinder the study process in classrooms. We found most of the buildings in Azam Basti with similar issues of poor infrastructure. The area also lacks a proper water and sanitation system, has no access to a public transport network, and has an inadequate housing plan.

It is no wonder that Karachi has been ranked the fifth least livable city in the world by the Global Livability Index 2019, and is also among the top five cities with the worst air quality in the world (United States Environmental Protection Agency).

The massive influx of people into Karachi in search of better employment opportunities has only added pressure to the already overburdened infrastructure of the city, resulting in further expansion of informal communities. A little more than 50 percent of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements.

This brings forth some very specific challenges, such as systemic problems related to a lack of access to affordable housing, inappropriate spatial planning, an incomplete system of land management, as well as growing urban poverty.

In addition, because of the nature of these settlements, the development needs of these residents often get neglected when policies are being formulated. Azam Basti is no different: many students at the school belong to migrant families, whose parents and grandparents migrated from the country’s various rural and urban areas in search of a better livelihood. Located in Karachi’s East District, Azam Basti has a soaring population. The neighbourhood, however, has not kept up with the expansion. The residents, who aimed to resettle for better employment opportunities, are faced with growing urban socio-economic stresses. Overcrowding, lack of public spaces and poor access to transportation systems are just a few of these.

As our research continues to raise awareness about the issues in low-income settlements, we hope that policy makers will recognize that robust infrastructure such as access to basic services like electricity, reliable transportation, and development of affordable housing and schools is essential to upgrade the quality of life and education in these informal settlements.

Not only does the education sector expenditure needs to expand to provide equal opportunities to children of school-going age in all areas of Pakistan, but there is an urgent need for transformational policies in urban planning.

Sustainable cities will help create sustainable communities, and the UNDP Pakistan and IBA Karachi urban project hopes to take us one step closer to this sustainable future.

Text by: Mariam KhanAssistant Manager Content, IBA Karachi; Aqsa Jawed, Co-investigator, 'Access to Justice & Human Rights for the Development and Resilience of Informal Urban Communities', IBA Karachi; Momina Sohail, Communications Officer, Development Policy Unit, UNDP Pakistan

Photos by: Mariam KhanAssistant Manager Content, IBA Karachi; Aqsa Jawed, Co-investigator, 'Access to Justice & Human Rights for the Development and Resilience of Informal Urban Communities', IBA Karachi.

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