Striking PIA

Updated February 03, 2016

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THE government has comprehensively fumbled with its plans for PIA. Invoking the Essential Services Act of 1952 to break the strike of PIA unions against the proposed privatisation plan appeared to be an act of sheer panic.

But the subsequent clashes between striking workers and security officials at the airport, resulting in the tragic death of two employees, have turned the plans into a fiasco.

It must also be mentioned that the reported resort to aerial firing at an airport by the security agencies, where there are aircraft circling overhead, is beyond stupidity — it is downright dangerous and those responsible must be made aware of this.

Beyond the follies of the moment, the entire episode has turned a delicate matter into an open contest of wills of the sort that is usually won by the party with more grit, which in this case would be the unions.

The signs of mismanagement were there all along. Nobody was sure who was overseeing the exercise to find a ‘strategic investor’ for the airline. Was it the aviation adviser or the privatisation minister?

Frequent and, apparently often unwanted, input from the finance minister didn’t help things either.

All felt free to give all sorts of commitments publicly, including reassurances to the workers that nobody would lose his or her job in the process. When the ordinance to convert the airline into a corporation was defeated in the Senate, we had three different committees in the National Assembly overseeing the affairs of PIA. When the Supreme Court restrained the aviation adviser from taking any independent decisions, he gave his resignation to the prime minister which the latter did not accept, creating further confusion about the role of the adviser.

As the government hurtled towards the end-December deadline it had set for itself, matters appeared to be spinning out of control. In response, it leaned on the law-enforcement agencies to get a grip on things as protests spilled out onto the streets. The result is that two people are now dead, the union has gained two ‘martyrs’ to rally around, and is now stronger than ever before. So much for the best-laid plans.

Nobody should doubt that PIA is in grave difficulty, with accumulated losses having risen to Rs300bn, an amount that is almost equal to the circular debt in the power sector.

Few also doubt that the situation can be credibly improved without some sort of game-changing intervention that injects private-sector energies into the management of the airline. But the manner in which the government has pursued this ambitious goal is clumsy and smacks of haste and hubris.

The PML-N has never been famous for its ability to bring people together, to reach out to adversaries and carve a consensus around a highly contested goal. The way in which they have dealt with the restructuring of PIA only reinforces this perception.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2016