THE move was not unexpected. The government had made clear its intentions of sacking over 9,300 remaining employees of the Pakistan Steel Mills in June — despite all the pre-election promises of the PTI to revive the entity with the help of the existing workforce and through improvements in the company’s management.
Friday’s service termination orders to 4,544 PSM workers indicates just the start of the implementation of a new government plan to ‘reform and restructure’ SOEs in order to cut financial losses. The remaining workers will be sent home in the next few months if everything goes according to script. What will follow is the ‘downsizing’ or ‘rightsizing’ of staff in other public-sector businesses such as PIA. At least half of the workers of the national flag carrier face the prospect of losing their jobs in the near future.
All this is in line with the recommendations made by the reforms committee headed by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Institutional Reforms and Austerity Ishrat Husain to reorganise state-run businesses before they are sold to the private sector, or revived under public-private partnership by hiring ‘competent’ overseas Pakistanis in key managerial positions, or through infusing new capital in their operations.
Most public-sector businesses have become a huge financial liability for the cash-strapped government, which is forced to spend billions of rupees every year to keep them operational as is the case with PIA and the railways and to pay workers’ salaries at PSM. The argument for the need to cut down on the number of excess staff in SOEs, who are often recruited because of political and other reasons, may have some merit, but the question remains: is it right to abolish jobs in the public sector at a time when the government and the State Bank have doled out subsidised, soft loans amounting to billions of rupees to help private businesses maintain their payroll in view of the Covid-19 crisis? Even some of those inside the power circles will disagree with such arbitrary removals when the working classes are struggling to cope with the harsh economic situation caused by the pandemic.
With Covid-19 infections resurging and the fragile economic recovery facing serious risks, there could not have been a worse time to sack the PSM workers. Indeed, the move is an admission of the government’s own failure; like its predecessors, it has been unable to devise a viable programme to resurrect the country’s largest industrial enterprise at a time when the private sector is investing in new steel manufacturing capacities and technologies to take advantage of growing domestic needs amid rising steel demand. Had it taken timely action to restart production at the mill, perhaps through the infusion of capital, it could have saved a national asset and spared thousands of PSM workers the agony of losing their jobs.
PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has nominated lawyer Naeem Bukhari as chairman of the state-run broadcaster PTV. Even before taking charge of his new office, Mr Bukhari, himself a television personality, told reporters PTV will not provide any coverage to the opposition because it is meant to project the government. In a video statement issued recently, he reiterated that the main purpose of PTV was to project the government. Mr Bukhari is wrong. But unfortunately, he is not the only one who has misplaced notions about the role of a state broadcaster. The PTI is the latest in a long line of ruling parties that have harped on reforming PTV when in opposition and then rubbishing such pious intentions once in power. If PTV today is a white elephant struggling for relevance in a swiftly transforming media environment, it is due to the myopic vision and faulty understanding of those who have the responsibility of overseeing the official media thrust upon them. However, in the present case it is indeed the prime minister himself who shares the bulk of the burden. His party’s manifesto boasted about reforming PTV when it came to power, and Mr Khan is on record as having said the same thing when in opposition. From those noble intentions to Mr Bukhari’s cavalier utterances — the PTI has indeed come a long way.
It is also the wrong way. The modern world has no place for archaic organisations like a state broadcaster generating no other content than stale and crude government propaganda. Instead, what holds value is what is called a ‘public broadcaster’. Prime examples of taxpayer-funded public broadcasters are Britain’s BBC, Canada’s CBC and America’s NPR. A public broadcaster caters primarily to the needs of the citizens, not of the government. Unshackled from the confines of commercially driven content, it carries the mandate to produce high-quality, credible and trustworthy content that adds value to the lives of citizens. A public broadcaster enriches democracy by providing people responsible and ethical news that reinforces social and cultural values while ensuring that viewers are not deprived of authentic information they require as citizens of a democratic state. Very few among our political parties seem to have a nuanced understanding of a public broadcaster’s role. This is why Pakistanis are forced to carry the burden of PTV and endure the rigours of official propaganda spewed forth with relish by unqualified people like Mr Bukhari.
IT is shocking that some members of the Pakistan cricket team in New Zealand have tested positive for Covid-19. Not only have doubts been raised about the tour, the incident has also caused deep national embarrassment. The entire Pakistan contingent, currently serving a 14-day quarantine period, has been issued a final warning by health authorities in New Zealand after closed-circuit television footage showed a few members of the visiting squad contravening social-distancing protocols by mingling and having food in the hotel lobby. In the aftermath of the incident, permission for the players to train in isolation at their Christchurch hotel was also revoked. The hosts have made it clear to the visiting side that they would not tolerate any risky behaviour in a country that has practically eliminated the virus. Though Pakistan’s tour party, led by skipper Babar Azam, tested negative before leaving Lahore last week, they were tested again for the virus soon after landing in New Zealand. Seven tested positive.
The whole episode reflects poorly on the players as well as the Pakistan team management for their failure to observe strict Covid-19 protocols. Experienced officials including Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Waqar Younis and others accompanying the squad as coaching staff were expected to provide guidance to the players during overseas tours but, apparently, that did not happen. Besides, a majority of the team members in the current squad had to observer similar SOPs during Pakistan’s tour of England in August this year and should not have been found wanting in their behaviour. The tour will take off with a three-match T20 series; the first game in Auckland is scheduled for Dec 18, followed by two Tests. However, the tour will be in jeopardy if there are further breaches. New Zealand Cricket said it is having discussions with the tourists to ensure they understand the quarantine requirements. PCB’s chief executive Wasim Khan, too, has spoken to the players about the grim situation. It is hoped that there won’t be more challenges.