Information Technology: Opportunities for Pakistan

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Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

WITH the growing world population that has crossed the 7 billion mark, and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, huge challenges lie ahead in terms of food, education and health. The real wealth of Pakistan lies in its youth. About 100 million of our population (56%) is below the age of 19. This is a unique advantage as it offers of a window of opportunity for progress. Educating this large and growing body of students is a big challenge. Fortunately,information and communication technologies have opened up new opportunities in the last decade that did not existpreviously. The communications now possible at long distances through access to internet have opened up doors for distance education of millions of students separated by thousands of miles.
The first major steps to enter into the new IT age were taken in Pakistan when I was the Federal Minister of Science & Technology in 2000-2002. The Ministry of Science & Technology then included both the Information Technology and the Telecommunications Divisions. This short period of 2.5 years from March 2000 to September 2002 witnessed incredibly fast progress of IT infra-structure and services as well as of mobile telephony in Pakistan. Internet access was confined to only 29 cities till early 2,000. It was rapidly expanded to cover 2,000 cities, towns and villages during the next two years. Fiber was expanded from 40 cities to over a 1000 cities and towns. Bandwidth had been priced ridiculously high till then —$ 87,000 per month for a 2 MB line per month. This had strangled the growth of IT in Pakistan. It was sharply reduced initially to about $3,000 per month and later brought down to less than $ 100 per month so that Pakistan became one of the cheapest in the world. Mobile telephony was static at about 300,000 mobile phones only. To boost this important sector, prices were dropped sharply, U-Fone was brought in as a competitor and all charges for receiving a call were removed. This had been a major hurdle in expansion of mobile telephone services since common people were reluctant to have a phone in which they had to pay for a call being made to them by someone else. The introduction of the “Calling Party Pays” (CPP) regime in Pakistan along with other measures resulted in a huge boost to the mobile telephony sector and the mobile telephony boom started and continues till this day. We have about 160 million mobile phones in Pakistan, as compared to 300,000 in the year 2001! To use these new technologies in education, a satellite was placed in space (PakSat 1) and a couple of transponders were set aside for distance learning courses of the Virtual University that we established in Lahore. Today the Virtual University provides quality education to over 200,000 students and has teaching programs across Pakistan and abroad. The rapid improvements in the IT infra-structure allowed me later as Chairman Higher Education Commission to use them for the benefit of the higher education sector. A digital library that provided free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 text books and monographs from 220 international publishers to our university students was established, thereby bringing a huge repository of knowledge to our students.
The single most important problem in providing quality education in Pakistan is the lack of highly qualified faculty. However now it is possible to benefit from lectures and courses delivered from thousands of miles away. There are two broad types of distance education programs, live and recorded. The live interactive coursesare delivered through video-conferencing or through a special software such as Webinar on your laptop. The recorded courses are broadly termed as “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) that can be delivered through the internet. Pakistan today is a world leader in both these fields, due to the efforts that were undertaken in my leadership during the last decade.
The live inter-country distance education program was initiated by HEC in 2004 under my Chairmanship. We established video conference facilities in universities across Pakistan. Known as The Higher EducatioN project (THEN), it has already delivered over 4,000 live lectures by top professors in USA, Europe, Australia, and Japan to students in universities in Pakistan, thereby contributing to improve educational standards. The other initiative taken by us was to make MOOCs available in a readily accessible form to schools, colleges and universities in Pakistan. Thousands of excellent recorded courses are thus now available free of charge from a number of sources. The national focal point of this important initiative has been my institute (International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at University of Karachi). Students across the world can now have access to thousands of excellent recorded courses from a dedicated single website, www.lej4learning.com.pk . They can thus come prepared to the lectures and the lecture rooms are undergoing a profound change —— they are in the process of being transformed to discussion sessions between the teacher and students, so that the students can clarify concepts. These thousands of excellent courses delivered by top world professors in science, engineering, social sciences and other disciplines provide a treasure chest of information. They include courses from Harvard, MIT, Yale, California and the Khan Academy. Indeed, under my instructions HEC, had established a mirror web site of MIT Open Courseware in Pakistan in 2005. This was done to facilitate the rapid downloading and access to these courses. MIT was the first to open up its courses to the world through the MIT Open Courseware initiative. After careful vetting of these courses some 10,000 CDs were prepared and distributed to the computer science departments of various universities in Pakistan. One immediate advantage that Pakistan can derive from advances in information technology is that of tax collections.It is easily possible to link the NADRA data base with the FBR date base of tax payers. By deleting the tax payers list from the NADRA base, one can immediately obtain a list of those persons who have bought lands, houses, automobiles, or travelled abroad, but who do not declare taxes. This can result in a huge expansion of the tax net within days, solving Pakistan’s immediate revenue problems. The only thing needed is the desire on the part of the present bureaucracy to allow this to happen, as a large number of powerful and influential personswill be exposed. It can be done through a determined Prime Minister who can over rule any administrative objections that will be brought up, since technically it is very feasible to do so. This could be coupled with the overnight cancellation of the Rs.40,000 and other high denomination Prize Bonds as well as the Rs.5,000 rupee denomination as done in India recentlyto reduce the size of the black economy. The answer to some of Pakistan’s present woes lies in the judicious use of information technology, and the challenge lies ahead for our Minister of Information Technology Dr. Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui to take this up on a war footing, in the face of all bureaucratic resistance. The immediate access to data through NADRA is a huge boon for Pakistan that we can utilize to our advantage, if the political will exists.
The writer is the former Federal Minister of Science & Technology & Information Technology,&former Chairman of Higher Education Commission. Currently he is President of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC) and Co-Chairman of UN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP.

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