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Private good, public bad



When I was a reporter, one of my beats was the Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM). I used to write regularly on the crisis that had engulfed one of Pakistan's largest industrial complexes. In those days, a general had taken over running of the mills as its chairman. His name was Lieutenant General Sabeeh Qamaruz Zaman and he had tried to 'sort out' issues there to the point that the mills were back in the black.

The example of the Pakistan Steel Mills under Sabeeh Qamaruz Zaman and of Pakistan International Airlines under Air Marshal Noor Khan, who transformed the national carrier into one of the leading airlines of the region, are far and few. Since then, we have been using this formula to entrust such commercial entities to non-commercial men and it has not worked. Today, the PSM runs in a perpetual loss more so because of its massive overheads.

How do we move ahead? I remember one of my sources telling me that if I wanted to do investigative reporting, the PSM was the tip of the iceberg in terms of corruption. He said I should write about the Pakistan Railways, where he said the "real money is made" by errant employees. That was 20 years ago. Things have not changed. At the Railways in the past years, successive attempts to run a private sector business express have been thwarted by the bureaucrats within. They don't have to have anything to do with privatisation as for them the gravy train comes to a halt.

Whether it is Pakistan Steel, Railways, PIA or even the Civil Aviation Authority, one can only wish that they get their act together. We can give them to the private sector and hope they will improve. We have examples of the KESC and Habib Bank before us. They have managed to clean up their act after changing the management. But then there have been others who haven't.

Another consideration for us would be who the new owners should be. Will we be happy to have a foreign ownership take over these entities. I don't see any harm in this. In other countries too, foreign owners have come in and bought companies. But there is a regulatory framework in place. Possibly it is there we have to work harder. Our regulators are far from independent and very politicised.

Privatisation is not the only solution. We could try and reinvigorate the airline like Noor Khan did. In retrospect, the proposal to code-share PIA's Europe operations with Turkish Airlines seems to have been a good idea. But managing director Aijaz Haroon was shamed out of office on charges that were never quite proven. All that was done at the behest of the PIA Air League union, which is affiliated with today's ruling party. Now they face the same headaches. Possibly, it is not too late to change from within.

That is not to say that public-sector entities have done well in recent years, even when they are not autonomous. Take for example NADRA, which was envisaged and put together during the time of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf by the ever-competent Brigadier Saleem Moin, whose skills in information technology are well known.

But here, it is the intention of the government in power that makes the difference. We cannot forget that it was at the time of the present government that the then NADRA chairman, Tariq Malik, was forced to resign after being pressured in ways that remain to be told. At the end of the day, the intentions of the government in power also make a difference. Had the Air League not played politics then, maybe PIA would be in better shape today.

When it comes to national institutions, maybe it's time to take stock and realise we cannot keep on bankrolling some of these organisations when the kitty is empty. Some argue that it's best to sell off entities like the Karachi Shipyard and the PNSC for a token amount. We should put national pride aside for a moment and have these entities run by commercial managers.

But this would mean the end of the gravy train for our high and mighty. No more free perks like VIP terminals and pre-assigned seats; or 50 per cent discounts to government servants and their families; or free tickets disbursed by our politicians.

The Express Tribune

The author  is the Editor of The Express Tribune


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