Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman has been striving hard to bring about an IT revolution

Dec 18 - 24, 2000

Promoting Information Technology (IT) and to bring about a revolution in this field in Pakistan is on the top of reform and development agenda of the present government.

Emphasising its need and importance, the Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman rightly pointed out that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate could be increased through revolution in Science and Technology.

Addressing a seminar in Islamabad, he said development does not cone through construction of roads and bridges, rather it is a hi-tech game with main stress on acquiring modern education. To emphasise his point, the Minister highlighted disparities between Muslim world and the developed countries and identified lack of education as the main factor for backwardness of Muslim countries. There were times when Muslims were torchbearers of knowledge but then came a period of deep slumber. Today the situation could be imagined by the fact that there are less than 400 universities in the Muslim world, a figure even less than half of the number in Japan. Keeping in mind that the Muslim countries possess 70 per cent of the world oil reserves, one-fourth of world natural resources and one-fourth of human resources, it becomes quite clear that our backwardness is merely because of criminal negligence of the policy-makers who could not exploit these precious resources for development.

We see a ray of hope in that for the last few months efforts are being made, at least in Pakistan, to make up for the lost time. Both as Minister for Science and Technology and Chief of the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technology Cooperation (COMSTECH) Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman has been striving hard to bring about an IT revolution. There are indications of encouraging results as Dr. Atta has succeeded sensitizing the masses about significance of IT and once necessary awareness is created nothing is beyond reach. The credit also goes to the Chief Executive for making first practical step towards realization of this goal by allocating a substantial amount of fifteen billion rupees for science and technology for the ongoing financial year.

The Chief Executive and the Science and Technology Minister have repeatedly said that software exports could be the turning point in our balance of trade. They point obliquely to next door India where software exports fetch over $4 billion and where the IT sector has managed to draw investment from major foreign technology brand names. Pakistan's IT policy has set aside a sum of five billion rupees for the first phase which includes major chunks for training and computer education.

Explaining the various measures being taken by the government to promote and popularise the IT education and training, the Minister for Science and Technology said that government will be providing scholarship to about 1000 needy but talented students to complete their education and training in the reputed institutions in the private sector which otherwise they could not afford. The amount of scholarship will range between Rs 8 to 10,000 per month. The government has allocated Rs.15 billion for setting up 5 IT universities in the next 3 years (one in each province and one in Islamabad), during these 3 years the government intends to build up a teaching force of about 3000 qualified persons to run these universities. Under the IT Policy and action plan, the entire country had been turned into an export processing zone as there was zero per cent duties and taxes on computer parts and computer equipment.

He said that there would be a visible change in the IT scene in the country in one year's time. He said all the federal ministries were being computerized and the work would be in full swing in the next three months. Dr. Atta said that software firms could retain 25 per cent of Letter of Credit (LC) in forex in banks abroad. For the purpose of collateral for obtaining loans from the banks, only the contract for developing software would be enough, he added.

The minister said that the government had signed a contract worth US$ 30 million for setting up of a tele-housing project. A venture capital fund of US$ 50 million had also been set up. Similarly, he said, Pakistan had the lowest internet bandwidth rate in the region. The government had reduced the rate of Internet bandwidth from US$360,000 to US$30,000 which is cheaper than India and even Dubai.

While all that is being done is in this neglected field is really laudable one cannot close eyes to the realities on the ground. The need for standardisation of IT education in the country cannot be overemphasised. At the moment too many varied and dissimilar courses are being offered by different institutions. But since the IT revolution is still in its nascent stages, a degree of anarchy and disorganization is understandable. However, what is needed right now from the government is some sort of regulation as far as IT educational institutions are concerned. Much like what happened in the case of business education a decade or so ago, heavy demand has spawned the establishment of hundreds of institutes everywhere offering every imaginable IT course and programme under the sun. What the government must do at this stage immediately is to get some guidelines that all institutions in public and private sector must conform to. These should include basics like size of premises, student-teacher ratio, student-machine/computer ratio, qualifications of the teaching staff, infrastructure and so on. In fact, the last point must be closely examined by, say, the provincial IT boards. Many institutes promise a lot to the would-be student and charge a hefty fee for instruction, but often fail to deliver on the promise. Not only is precious money wasted, the formative years of many a young persons are spent pursuing education which ultimately may not prove helpful in getting him a job.

The second point the authorities must keep in mind is the fact that this government initiative in promoting a key sector has come at a time when industrialized nations like America, Britain and Germany are facing acute shortages of computer-proficient professionals. These countries are now aggressively recruiting abroad to make up the shortfall. As a result many young people in the IT sector, who are educated and on their way to becoming financially sound, are leaving Pakistan for greener pastures.

This poses a challenge to the government which must try and ensure that the people it trains do not end up going away. This would mean a waste of the money spent on their training. Not only should an environment friendly to IT professionals be created, but enough incentives should also be offered to attract Pakistani expatriates and investors from abroad. Unfortunately just having an IT policy which has a lot of well intentioned goals and ample funding might not be enough since it rests both on domestic and foreign investment, measures to facilitate the work of the IT professionals must be taken.