By Muhammad Hamid Zaman
A question that is perhaps not asked often, but is increasingly becoming an important one, is that who owns a public university in Pakistan? It is no longer a rhetorical question about influence and appointments (though that remains a major concern), but a question about actual ownership of land and buildings.
The recent stories coming from Punjab University are concerning. There is an ongoing tussle between the university and the provincial government about two kanals of prime land which belongs to the university. The provincial government has been demanding that the university let go of the land, immediately, for building of a religious seminary. The seminary, apparently, was promised the land (without any discussion with the university) to compensate for the loss of land needed to build the Orange Line. While this may seem bizarre and an aggressive land grab of the worst kind, this has been going on for some time. Hundreds of kanals of prime university land, over the last decade, have been taken for road expansion and other pet projects of the government. Folks at Punjab University insist that they have never been compensated.
Folks in the government would argue that the land belongs to the public, and is therefore used for public good. With population bursting at the seams and an exponential rise in the number of vehicles on the road, better roads are needed for the citizens. That argument is fine to begin with, but has the same issue as the one pointed out by many citizens and advocacy groups during Shalimar Gardens-Orange Line discussions. Development is indeed necessary, but should not be at the cost of our history and heritage. In this case of Punjab University, the development (or compensation in the form of land to the seminary) seems to be at the cost of our future. In this particular case, the problem is further complicated since the land is being forcibly given to another entity. The fact that neither the provincial minister of higher education nor the adviser to the CM have any experience in higher education, university leadership, research or university teaching has made the issue even more difficult. It is unclear if they have any experience or training in understanding how universities operate, how the universities evolve and why universities need to have the space to grow over time.
Universities grow over time, reflecting the growth in student body and research infrastructure needs. This growth also requires that new development is in proximity to other units on campus for collaboration. Invariably, this requires land available for growth. University open space is also necessary for students to be able to walk, relax, engage in conversations and not risk being run over by traffic or have their concentration affected by incessant noise and air pollution. When the prime universities of the country were founded, they were outside the city, but with rapid expansion and population growth, that is no longer the case. The university land is often pristine, well kempt and hence a prime target for developers.
A new road, an expanded highway, a wider roundabout are indeed tempting. Especially if the land in question seems underused or underutilised — but this temptation needs to be checked, by the university, students and the general public. Just because the universities are public, does not mean that their land is up for grabs. The land of the university should be used by the university for public good and not by politicians. We need to remind our leaders that there is more to public good than roads, and the future of research and education should not be a bargaining chip in political calculations and appeasement. The fixation on a myopic definition of development should not sacrifice the future.
courtesy The Express Tribune
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman