The government has announced it will unbundle several state-owned enterprises that have been bleeding state coffers dry for decades. Chief among these will be Railways, PIA and Pakistan Steel Mills. Private sector entities will come in to help run these businesses, but questions remain over how anyone will turn them around without some extreme measures.
Under the plan, Railways will be split up into a regulatory body, track and infrastructure companies, a freight service, and private passenger services. While allowing private competition on the lines may help improve service quality and utilisation while lowering prices, the parts that the government is keeping control of still mean that major reforms will be needed. Since 1947, Pakistan has failed abysmally at adding track length or improving the quality of the rail network. Price was among the factors. It is unlikely that private parties would want to invest in better carriages or engines when the infrastructure is lacking.
The plan for PSM also involves splitting the company and offering its bloated employee base voluntary separation. But PSM’s problems are far greater than overstaffing. Even at its peak, the company was not competitive and, like much of our heavy industry, relied on government subsidies and import tariffs to survive. Alternatively, the company could be sold off without any guaranteed protection, which might actually be better for the government and the economy, but not for sale prospects.
Meanwhile, PIA would see its staff halved, some related operations outsourced, and several routes closed. But even then, the government also plans to invest heavily in a new fleet, which would cancel out any benefits of downsizing. At present, only a few dozen state-owned airlines remain. Only a handful are profitable, while most of the others are owned by wealthy countries. PIA’s domestic utility is also questionable at best. While it does connect a few far-flung areas, most people still prefer to travel by road due to the lower prices. Vanity is keeping the airline under government control, and bankrupting us all.
Protests in G-B
The 1970 general elections have been different from all the rest, at least on one count — that its results were accepted by all contesting parties. Many of the elections that followed triggered protests from the losing parties and gave rise to political instability in the country. The 1977 elections brought military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq in power in the wake of protests by PNA against prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto over alleged rigging. The elections in the late 80s and 90s were also not free from the allegations of rigging. And in recent times, the 2013 general elections led to an agitating PTI marching on the federal capital and staging a 126-day-long sit-in against what the party leaders called a stolen mandate.
Now in the government, the PTI faces similar allegations as well as the wrath of the losing parties — not just over the 2018 general elections but also the recent ones in Gilgit-Baltistan. A violent post-poll protest in an otherwise crime-free zone of G-B is a serious cause for concern. A large number of protesters, belonging to PPP, gathered outside the G-B Election Commissioner’s Office and chanted slogans against the government and the election commissioner for “not carrying out a promised forensic audit” concerning one of the 24 election constituencies. They also set ablaze a government office and three government vehicles and blocked a major road by lighting a bonfire. The PPP information secretary though said it was the police shelling that forced peaceful protesters to turn violent.
Regardless of the protest being justified or not, the debate here is: what stops us from having an election whose results are acceptable to all contesting parties? Why can’t we carry out meaningful election reform, enabling us to put the rigging allegations to rest? Why in neighbouring India, are election results accepted with open heart by all, and why not here? We saw election reforms committees constituted in the wake both 2013 and 2018 elections, but nothing concrete came out of them. PM Imran Khan has recently expressed his determination to bring electoral reforms. If he is really serious, a truly autonomous election commission could be the starting point.
Menace of quackery