The Express Tribune Editorial 3 May 2021

Of politicians and promises


Opinion is free; but fact is fact. However, both opinions and promises are free. In 2019, the then minister for science and technology, who now holds the portfolio of information, had announced that bottled safe drinking water would soon be made available for Re1 a litre, and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) was making preparations in this regard. The price of the water suggests that the plan was meant to benefit the common man.
Now after a year and a half down the line, it has been revealed that only the bottle costs Rs7. Obviously, the minister did not do his homework before he made the alluring announcement. Given his young age and inexperience, he sometimes resorts to pompous rhetoric. He is not alone in promising the moon to the people. The promise was not pure wind, however. It was a case of, there is no smoke without fire. The PCRWR chairman has cleared the fog enveloping the issue belatedly though that filtered water would cost less than one rupee a litre minus the cost of bottle. Two such water filtration plants cost as little as 23 paisas a gallon. The official says they discourage the consumption of bottled water at their offices and they use glasses. As to the delay in coming out with the real situation, he says he was out of the country when the announcement had been made.
Politicians are the same everywhere: they promise to build bridges even where there are no rivers. Recently, a provincial minister announced that many electric buses would be imported. However, electric buses are more expensive than other kinds of buses, and they are useful only when run on clean electricity. Before the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi had promised to build many 500 square feet houses in 10 days in poor areas of Mumbai, if voted to power. Another politician had said that every person in the country would soon have Rs1.5 million in his or her bank account.



The need to lead by example


When in distress, citizens are naturally inclined to turn towards their political leaders for understanding, guidance and direction. This is something that the K-P Health Minister, Taimur Saleem Jhagra, should have considered before violating coronavirus SOPs at an iftar dinner he recently attended. As seen in pictures posted on social media, dozens of people present were not following social distancing protocols. Many of them were seen without masks, including the minister himself. While the Peshawar Assistant Commissioner took swift action on the matter, Jhagra maintains he wasn’t aware of the location nor the number of people attending.
Still, the respected minister could have easily refused to attend after he had reached the restaurant and witnessed a crowd of people inside; or, if doing so seemed a bit rude, he could have merely asked the host to change the sitting arrangement in accordance with social distancing regulation. By doing so, the need to strictly follow regulations would have been re-enforced, all the while serving as an example to leaders across Pakistan who themselves haven’t been abiding by the required protocols sincerely. What is even worse is that the incident comes at a critical time — as the threat of the third wave looms over us, the fallout could be catastrophic this time around. It is important to consider the perception of the general public, most of whom tend to believe in conspiracy theories and are already stern skeptics of the vaccine. Therefore, even if the minister was fully vaccinated, he needs to act in a manner that exhibits the responsibilities every individual has during such unprecedented times.
Leaders are considered as role models and ‘belief managers’, especially by the youth. They strongly shape their followers’ beliefs through their words and their actions. They need to lead by example and embody the very ideals they preach.



PIA privatisation


The federal cabinet is now mulling over the umpteenth effort to beat some life back into the dead horse that is PIA. The latest proposal is splitting it into two companies, a plan that has actually been floated before. The Nawaz Sharif government tried to do it in 2015 and was forced to walk it back after protests by PIA’s unions. With that in mind, the incumbent PTI government’s first focus should not be finalising the proposal but figuring out if they will be able to get unions on board or if they are willing to take action against protesting employees.
What exactly the plan will include is still up for debate. News reports contained sparse details, and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry did not have much to say beyond the fact that the proposal has been kicked back to the Economic Coordination Committee for some tweaking. What we do know is that the proposal includes human resource and operational restructuring, which would be done through some sort of ‘golden parachute’ scheme coupled with cutting some routes, modernising the fleet, and new product development, among other things.
All of these cost money, which PIA, and for that matter, even the Government of Pakistan, do not have. Whether PIA is split in two, four, or a hundred, its problems will not go away as long as it stays in government hands. At this stage, literally giving away the airline — along with all attached debt — is probably the only way the people of Pakistan will benefit. But then, how will they feel ‘national pride’ in flying a state-owned airline? It is astounding that a government that has placed such impetus on austerity is willing to burn taxpayer money in an effort to bring PIA back to life.
Aside from regular cash injections, the government plans to absorb over Rs200 billion of PIA’s liabilities and amortise over Rs450 billion. For comparison, this year’s federal education budget is Rs83 billion. Estimates for the cost of buying Covid-19 vaccines for every Pakistani ranged between Rs250 million and Rs400 million. We did not even consider this option because we could not afford it. But we can apparently afford to pay for the ‘national pride’ that comes with owning one of the world’s worst airlines.

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