Printers wait for business
Blaming the poor quality of printing in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Education has been awarding contracts for textbooks to foreign publishers. But the Ministry of Culture claims the manner in which the contracts are awarded is suspect and encourages corruption.
Education ministry officials, however, deny the charge, and insist the contracts are awarded to those who deliver good quality printing at low prices.
According to figures from the education ministry, 200 million textbooks have been printed in the last decade and a half. But officials could not say what percentage of the books was printed inside the country.
The ministry has to award contracts to print 49 to 56 million new books.
There are 150 printing establishments under the Union of Printing Houses. Some 30 are not working, but the rest are in business.
Dr Ajmal Azem, a deputy in the union, insists the members of the union are capable of meeting the Ministry of Education's demands for professionally and cheaply published new books.
However, Mohammad Kabir Haqmal who is heading the publications department at the Ministry of Education doubts Afghan printers can meet the ministry's requirements and compete with their foreign counterparts. "We might have one or two publishers who can meet the standards of good publishers in the region. The rest are printers of just brochures, newspapers, visiting cards and elementary school books and not in a position to print books as per the standards set by the Ministry of Education," he says.
Dr Azem from the Union of Printing Houses has no doubts Afghan publishers are as good as those outside the country who meet the requirements of the education ministry. He says, "The quality of books that are being printed in Afghanistan is equal to that in European countries."
At a disadvantage
The owners of printing houses in Kabul city say that the Afghan printing houses have the ability to print books and other items for the ministry of Education and other ministries but the ministries don't give the contracts.
Safiaullah Naseri who is in charge of the Waigal Printing House says, "The process of giving the contract not only has not become easier but more complicated with the establishment of the Procurement Committee. None of the promises made regarding the printing industry has been put in practice."
According to Naseri, the ministry's "unjust" practices in awarding contracts have been obstacles in the growth of the Afghan printing business.
The owner of Azem printing house Dr Azem echoes Naseri's view. "Printing houses in Afghanistan have the ability to print books for the Ministry of Education and other ministries but the ministries don't award contracts to them." He went on to add that the printing machines used in Afghanistan are similar to those in developed countries.
Azem insists the ministry's requirement that 70 million books be printed within four months is unrealistic. "We say to the Ministry of Education that we are ready to print books but the deadline you set is difficult to meet. If you were to place the order with printers outside the country, they also find it difficult to supply the books on time," he says.
Haqmal who heads the publications department at the Ministry of Education told Killid that anyone can bid for contracts of the ministry and based on the rules of the Commission of Procurement the winner who best meets both the low price and good quality requirement is announced.
Charges of corruption
Meanwhile, the authorities in the Ministry of Culture and Information blame corruption in the ministries of education and higher studies for the printing of books for schools and university students outside the country.
Saber Shah Momand, who is the spokesperson for the ministry, is categorical the "process" is corrupting. But Haqmal, head of the education ministry's department of publications, rejects the charges of corruption.
Haqmal claims the ministry is in the process of studying the capacity of individual printing houses in the country. "First information is gathered and then in cooperation with USAID (the US development agency) the ability of each printing house's capacity to print within 24 hours is evaluated," he says.
He claims this would eventually boost the Afghan printing business. "This would mean that the printing houses would have continuous work and the Ministry of Education would not have to depend on printing books outside the country."
There are a few bookstores in Kabul like Acsos. Most books at Acsos are printed in Afghanistan by Waigal. Business is good, says Haidari in the store. "Many politicians, young girls and youth are coming to buy books."
Though the government speaks about lowering the taxes on industry and businesses, owners of printing houses complain about the increase of taxes on raw materials. Dr Azem points out that there is no tax on imported books but raw materials for the printing business are taxed at every stage, which makes books printed in Afghanistan much more expensive. Thirty publishers have been driven out of business as a result of high taxes and custom duties.