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PIA and ‘Aunty Gormint’

I feel like Aunty Gormint, our social media sensation. Unfortunately my editors won’t let me speak like her. Our proud national carrier – the great people to fly with – has heaped more humiliation upon us. What is worse, we can be sure that a lot more is awaiting the hapless nation.

Most of us have reconciled ourselves to our new place in the global pecking order and a majority in this country is born to be humiliated anyway. What angers me more is the fact that we buy this humiliation at an exorbitant cost. Billions of dollars have been taken from the poor – many of whom have never set foot in a plane – to keep this glorious junk flying. There must be some method to this madness.

Why do we have this great corporation at all? The main job of an airline is to fly people from one place to another. There are dozens of international airlines that operate in Pakistan and some private national airlines that operate on many inland and international routes. With some adjustments, these airlines can easily carry all Pakistani passengers, freeing hundreds of billions of rupees that can be put to good use. Why do successive governments like to throw money down the bottomless pit of a corporation that has been bankrupted many times over?  An economist may see it in terms of subsidy. But who is being subsidised here? PIA is not cheaper than non-subsidised airlines, so it is not the passenger who is the beneficiary of the state largesse. In the final analysis, it the corporation itself that is being subsidised to keep its workforce employed.

The great people working at PIA are no common workforce at all. Somehow, jobs within the departments running our airports are counted amongst the most prestigious and lucrative form of employment. FIA and customs are very popular with young relatives of Pakistan’s power elite. However, no institution can match PIA. Anyone who has been a legislator in Pakistan in the last 30 years is likely to have a nephew or a son-in-law serving at the great airline. A constant stream of nalaiq relatives pumps new blood into the national carrier and also ensures its longevity and survival. In addition, there is a huge scope of rent-seeking and, now, new opportunities to export these feel-good chemicals in the most efficient way.

Aunty Gormint, in her analysis of Pakistan’s politics, tells us two things. First, the government has been sold out and now is almost dysfunctional. Second, Pakistan’s ruling elite is secretly in cahoots to befool and hoodwink us. PIA proves all of her points. Governments in Pakistan are sold out to their sectional and class interests and our elite show amazing unity while guarding their interests.

Government after government has staged the same spectacle in which both the government and the opposition join hands – though they play oppositional roles, while the end is foretold.

The government starts the play by announcing privatisation plans for PIA, mourning the losses that the corporation is incurring. PIA argues that with some investment it can become a great airline once again and there is simply no need to privatise it. PIA employees and opposition parties together blame PIA’s inefficiency on the government, ‘forcing’ the government to undertake a restructuring plan that would make PIA a profitable entity.

Some argue that PIA can be privatised after buying some new planes. The government smilingly caves in and doles out billions of rupees. It does not take PIA very long to get reloaded to go through another restructuring followed by the same theatre.

We have just been through one such cycle. In 2015, the government tried to sell 26 percent stakes along with the management control of the airline. Both the PTI and the PPP got together with PIA unions to protect the nation’s precious asset. Saleem H   Mandviwalla, the PPP’s aviation expert, came up with this great conspiracy theory: “Their motive behind the ordinance is to sell the PIA to the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi; this deal has been brokered by Chaudhry Muneer, a relative of PM Nawaz Sharif and Shujaat Azeem, Special Assistant to [the] Prime Minister on Aviation.”

The PTI also pledged to continue supporting PIA’s employees till their genuine demands were resolved. The government soon obliged and a new premier service was launched.  Though this service was discontinued, PIA has come up with new ideas of flying premier.

After a job well done, the man who was responsible for privatisation has been promoted to the office of the Sindh governor.

PIA and its mentors have weaved some interesting narratives to keep its umbilical cord with the state intact. The first narrative is the story of PIA’s past grandeur. It is a story of how one person singlehandedly set up one of the greatest airlines in the world. To me, it sounds like the stories told by a criminal’s mother who keeps reminding the world that his maligned son once used to be a chubby innocent baby who could do no harm. The tellers of these tales of the glorious past conveniently overlook the fact that the world, Pakistan and the airline industry has changed since the times of Air Marshal Noor Khan.

According to a report in The Economist: “Airlines used to be regarded as a vital part of transport infrastructure, like roads or bridges. So, until the mid-1980s, governments owned most of the airlines, set fares and routes, and protected flag-carriers by restricting new entrants. But privatisation made air travel more competitive and liberalisation brought competition from low-cost carriers. Most airlines in state control have failed to adapt.”

The second myth is attached to the most revered symbol of the nation: its flag. We are told that somehow every nation needs to have a flag carrier. It may surprise many of our leaders that a nation is entitled to keep its flag, even if it is not painted on the tail of an aeroplane flying with narcotics under its seats. In fact, many flag carriers in the world are not owned by the state.

Last week, IRIN, a humanitarian news portal, carried a wonderful report by Nadia Naviwala. The report discloses that after spending $6 billion and taking 12 years, the government has been unable to rebuild half of the schools that were destroyed during the 2005 earthquake. According to the report, 6,298 schools were to be rebuilt while the government has managed to complete the construction of only 3,008 schools.

According to Hussain Shah, a teacher quoted in the report: “There’s no place for students and teachers to sit. We can teach on warm days, but not when it rains. By November, we get snow. Until April, even May, it’s freezing”.

What is important here is not schools but the INGO behind the report who, I appeal to the interior minister, must be found and thrown out of the country. Similarly, another point of concern is the fact that the UK authorities had prior intimation of the presence of drugs on the plane while the Anti-Narcotics Force seemed to have no clue. Even if we cannot find those who are exporting these happy chemicals to our former colonial masters, we should at least find the traitor who informed the British authorities. Until the next restructuring of PIA, honourable ministers have some important work to do.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "PIA and ‘Aunty Gormint’," The News. 2017-05-22.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Ruling elite , Politics-Pakistan , National airlines , Corruption , Employment , Accountability , Saleem H Mandviwalla , Hussain Shah , Pakistan , IRIN , INGO