When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offered the job of privatising public corporations to Mohammad Zubair at a dinner in Bangkok last November, he warned the former IBM executive against expecting to come out of the exercise as a hero. “You’ll be my hero, though,” the prime minister told him.
The Sharif government looks at successful transaction of public corporations as a ‘game changer’ for the collapsing economy that will help it cut fiscal deficit and shore up dangerously low foreign exchange reserves. “It’s a challenge; we’ve got to do it if we want to grow the economy,” Privatisation Commission of Pakistan chairman Zubair tells Dawn during an interview.
The job of privatising public companies is one of the toughest in the country. The ambitious but controversial privatisation project, the largest-ever sale of public assets initiated anywhere in the world, is under the scanner.
Zubair is planning to give the 68 public firms, mostly loss-making, in private hands through auction, strategic partnership and management change. The process, he says, may take three years.
While multilateral lenders want him to follow the deadlines agreed with the IMF to cut the budget deficit and stabilise the economy, investors are waiting for him to put the oil and gas companies, PIA, banks and power distribution firms on the bloc to see if they have an opportunity there to expand their business interests by buying them.
Political parties and other groups of civil society are concerned over the social costs of privatisation and labour organisations are fearing job losses resulting from ‘the grand sale of the century’.
Thus, a major part of Zubair’s job is to neutralise political opposition to privatisation, address the fears of workers and ensure transparency in the process with an eye on the deadlines set by the IMF as part of its $6.6bn bailout package.
He has been reaching out to the critics of the programme and has met the leadership of political parties like PPP, PTI and JI and several labour organisations that have pledged to resist the sell-off. He has invited political parties to sit on the committee that will scrutinize bids to satisfy their concerns over transparency of the process. “None has so far advanced any proposal to make the process of privatisation effective and transparent. All I have got is misplaced criticism,” he says.
He says a PPP leader had told him that his party would oppose privatisation if (Mian Mohammad) Mansha was allowed to be part of it. “I cannot encourage foreign investors and discourage our own investors. This is not fair,” Zubair says. “Foreign investors will also not come if they find us restraining our own businessmen.”
PPP co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has opposed the privatisation programme and alleged it is being initiated to benefit people close to the prime minister. He has also demanded restructuring of the public corporations without selling them to the private investors.
PTI’s Asad Umar is also against sale of the government stakes in profitable companies like OGDCL and PPL, saying the government must revive the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in which it still has majority stakes and management control. But where the control has already been transferred to private buyers or companies suffering from massive losses and cannot be restructured should be got rid of.
“There’s a broad consensus that (most) public companies are suffering from huge financial losses and are a burden on the government,” Zubair tells Dawn. “The opinion is divided on solutions. Economics is not an exact science after all.”
The privatisation commission boss, however, rubbishes criticism against privatisation of profitable firms and the advice of turning around the loss-making companies without selling them off to private investors. “If these corporations could be fixed without giving them to the private sector, why didn’t the PPP turn them around during the last five years? I’ve never seen a faster decline of a company than of the Pakistan Steel Mills,” he contends.“The government neither has the cash to turn around the loss-making state-owned businesses nor the professional expertise to run commercial organisations. This is a fact that bureaucrats and ministers who are supposed to run these businesses are not qualified to take such decisions,” he argues. “The idea that only loss-making corporations should be sold and the profitable ones retained is a stupid argument. These organisations are not working to their full potential. They cannot achieve their maximum potential and improve service delivery unless they are given in private hands.”
Zubair also remains undeterred by the ‘threats’ of active resistance from its critics. “Nothing is going to happen. There’ll be no resistance that has the potential to jeopardise the programme or delay it,” he asserts. “The success of the privatisation programme hinges on transparency. This is the way of countering criticism. If the process is transparent the question who the buyer is will become irrelevant.”
Zubair says no plan is without risks. “We will make errors and mistakes. The process will enrich some people and its benefits will not immediately trickle down to all segments of society. But it will unleash the full economic potential of these corporations and push growth. Once the economic growth climbs to 7-8pc, new jobs will be created and society as a whole will benefit. Today, the critics are worried about the few thousands of workers who have jobs in these organisations. They are not worried about millions of those who are entering the market every year but cannot find a job because of low growth. It’s time to also think of those on the other side of the wall,” he argues.