Despite all these challenges, ERRA had completed 1,000 schools by 2010. Reconstruction only slowed from that point on, as two different crises increasingly diverted attention and resources.
In 2009, the military launched an offensive against Taliban militants who had taken over the Swat Valley. The vast military operations forced about two million people from their homes, mostly into displacement camps. The following year, Pakistan was hit by the worst flooding in its history – a natural disaster that left about 14 million people homeless.
“In 2009 onwards, we started facing difficulty getting money from the government of Pakistan,” explained a current ERRA official, who was not authorised to speak to media and requested anonymity. “We told the contractors to stop their work.”
By 2011, only seven percent of schools paid for by the government had been rebuilt entirely, according to an ERRA report.
“Where schools are only 10 percent complete, 50 percent complete, or 90 percent completed, that’s because the payments aren’t there,” said Mazhar Zia, a civil engineer with a Peshawar-based contractor.
ERRA’s budgets picked up in 2013, with the election of a new government, and school reconstruction resumed in some places. But many people today – including the ERRA official who requested anonymity – wonder why the agency still exists. While it is common for countries to set up reconstruction bodies in the wake of natural disasters, they are usually dissolved within a few years, and the responsibility for any continued reconstruction is passed on to relevant ministries and departments.
In 2009, the chairman of ERRA wrote to then-prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani requesting that the authority be abolished. Gilani responded by authorising the agency as a permanent entity through an act of parliament.
Today, most of the tenders available on ERRA’s website are for maintaining its headquarters in Islamabad: lawn maintenance, fixing vehicles, and purchasing a generator. Meanwhile, children in Pehlwan are studying on a rented porch and inside a mosque, just a few hundred feet away from the abandoned school construction sites.
“It’s simply criminal,” said Zaigham Khan, a former consultant for ERRA. “For so many years, children were sitting and studying in tents, in extremely harsh winters. There is no satisfactory answer for that.”