Dawn Editorial 18 January 2021

More ignominy for PIA

ANOTHER ignominious chapter has opened in the wretched saga of the national flag carrier. On Friday, it was learnt that a PIA Boeing 777 had been seized at Kuala Lumpur airport on the orders of a Malaysian court in a $14m lease dispute.
The aircraft was about to depart for Pakistan when the local authorities asked that the crew and passengers disembark. From the details available, it appears that this particular jet is one of two leased by PIA from a Dublin-based company and is part of the portfolio sold by the latter to Peregrine Aviation Charlie Ltd, which is the plaintiff in the case.
As per the interim injunction, PIA is barred from moving the two 777s once they have landed or parked at Kuala Lumpur airport pending the next hearing later this month. The other jet affected by the order was recorded by a flight tracking service as being in Karachi last month.
The decline of an airline that started out with such promise, that was a pioneer in many respects and was instrumental in setting up some of today’s most successful airlines, is an unmitigated tragedy. Decades of mismanagement, nepotism and political opportunism were bound to take their toll. Successive governments saw PIA as a means of rewarding the loyalty of supporters and the airline’s cadres were packed with undeserving people.
With time, PIA became a byword for mediocrity and dysfunction — a frightening decline in an environment where the slightest mistake or oversight can cost lives, and indeed did so. For this, the Civil Aviation Authority as the regulator must shoulder a large part of the blame. Perennially deep in the red, PIA has needed to be bailed out by the government on a regular basis. Within the past year, it seems all the chickens have come home to roost.
The crash of PK-8303 close to the Karachi airport in May 2020 precipitated a series of disastrous developments. As the preliminary investigation report showed, the incident — in which 97 out of 99 people on board perished — was the outcome of several avoidable but deadly procedural errors. Then, almost immediately after, the aviation minister declared that the CAA-issued licences of 260 Pakistani pilots working in various local and overseas airlines were ‘fake’, a reckless statement that pre-empted the outcome of an ongoing inquiry. His words created a global furore.
PIA was banned from operating in several parts of the world by various international airline safety boards; and Pakistani pilots employed by foreign carriers were suspended until the provenance of their licences was investigated. In the end, the number of fraudulent licences turned out to be far lower, but the damage was done. PIA has yet to recover from that catastrophe, and now this fresh embarrassment has surfaced. What is the airline management’s game plan? Does it even have one?



Agriculture woes

AGRICULTURE is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy. It is a source of livelihood for two-thirds of the country’s population living in villages and employs almost 39pc of the national labour force besides contributing to the nation’s overseas shipments of textiles, leather, rice, etc, which together form around three-quarters of the export revenue. More importantly, the country’s food security is reliant on the performance of the agriculture sector. Yet, only a negligible amount of money is spent on research and development to develop new high-yield seed varieties, assist farmers adopt modern technologies, improve soil fertility, help cattle owners increase milk yield and meat production for domestic and export markets, and so on. On top of that, smallholders are left at the mercy of middlemen and speculators for credit to buy inputs at hefty costs. Much of the government input subsidies are directed towards major crops such as wheat, rice and sugarcane, a policy that discourages growers to shift from low- to high-value crops. Research shows that improvement in crop output is driven primarily by expansion of the cultivable area and the increased use of chemicals, which has spawned food-safety concerns. It is also hinders efforts to boost agricultural exports.
Thus, it is not without reason that Prime Minister Imran Khan has termed agriculture “the most important sector” for the country’s future. We do not know what it means, but he has also directed the Punjab government to “remove all hurdles for facilitating farmers” and develop strategies for trebling agricultural production. No matter how important the prime minister’s message is, it will sound hollow unless it is backed by radical changes in federal and provincial policies affecting the competitiveness of the farm sector. With food demand rising continuously on the back of high population growth, the government needs to allocate more resources to agriculture research, and set up initiatives to encourage adoption of innovative farm technologies. Inefficient subsidies, as shown by many studies, mostly end up in the pockets of middlemen or big farmers instead of helping smallholders. Besides, programmes are needed for increasing growers’ access to cheaper, formal credit and linking them directly to the markets to eliminate the role of middleman to reduce their costs and raise their incomes. A well-developed agriculture sector can contribute majorly to national economic development and help alleviate rural poverty. For this to happen, policymakers need to clean up the mess they have made in this important sector.



Internet access

AS the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, and shows few signs of dissipating, one of the many lessons policymakers should be noting is the importance of high-speed internet, particularly for educational purposes and remote work. Yet many parts of Pakistan continue to struggle with accessing the internet, or citizens are unable to afford its costs, or face connectivity issues, particularly in the peripheral regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Furthermore, just as women face a constant stream of restrictions in the ‘real world’, their presence and access to the online world is filled with hurdles and setbacks.
Last week, the non-profit organisation Media Matters for Democracy published its most recent findings on women’s access to the internet in a report titled Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide Amidst Covid-19. Interviewing 215 women across Pakistan, including in the newly merged tribal districts, it noted that six out of 10 women faced some form of restriction from their families when accessing the internet, including for carrying out simple tasks such as attending online classes — the standard method of teaching for many during the pandemic — or communicating with family members on WhatsApp. Besides the gender divide, the survey also looked at socioeconomic barriers. It found that only 40pc of respondents use the internet daily; of those women, half belong to families earning more than Rs60,000 each month. Among women who do not use the internet at all, seven out of 10 belong to families who earn less than Rs30,000 each month. More than 75pc of respondents said that the internet was expensive and out of their reach. Additionally, when it came to cultural attitudes, many Pakistanis continue to regard women’s access to the internet with suspicion, and more than half of the respondents mentioned concerns from family members. The survey offers a list of recommendations for the government, including the setting up of public Wi-Fi spaces that are accessible to women, keeping ‘cultural dynamics’ in mind.

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