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The plane and the bus

February 14, 2016


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SOME stuff is winding down, other is gearing up, some winding on, so let’s just get to it.

Pick up a newspaper, flip on the TV, indulge in gossip de rigueur and it’s all pretty much been PIA, PIA, PIA.

It’s like Zarb-i-Azb was rolled into a general election and multiplied by a coup. Folk have been obsessed.

Let’s assume it wasn’t PIA. It was a bunch of striking public-sector teachers or railways employees or the teeming government basic staffers.


Partly, the N-League did what the N-League does best — got ugly on labour. Partly, the deaths and the spectacle of protest made for arresting TV and wanton comment.

Partly, aeroplanes still fascinate and airlines inspire awe in a poor-ish country. PIA is impossible to ignore. But that doesn’t quite capture it. Folk have been obsessed — like their lives depended on it.

What gives?

At the end of the day, it’s just a few thousand jobs in a bloated, ugly state. Jobs that are vital for those who hold them, but hardly of systemic import.

It’s not like, y’know, the railways. Or Wapda. Now those are big numbers.

And billions in losses stacked up on historical billions in losses make for some riveting reading and frenzied dilation, but who are we kidding — the numbers don’t really matter in the bigger picture of a wasteful state.

The PIA numbers, per year, aren’t like, y’know, the power sector or fuel or crop pricing. And yet — a frenzy.

Kinda like the never-receding talk about the Sharifs’ beloved metro buses. Folk seem to lose their minds.

It’s class. Rich vs poor; the priorities that matter over those that ought to; a confluence of uncoordinated, but entrenched opinions on where the state should spend our money and why.

Invoke class and there are some usual reactions: from eye rolls to scoffing dismissals to yeah, that’s where explanations go when what’s true and right are deemed subordinate.

But turn it around. Let’s assume it wasn’t PIA. It was a bunch of striking public-sector teachers or railways employees or the teeming government basic staffers.

The kind of disruption that, y’know, wouldn’t immediately and necessarily impact the folk consumed by an airline shutdown. A frenzy then? Surely not.

Un-coincidentally, the kind of people who fly and are affected, immediately or in general, by an airline shutdown are also the ones who tend to tell us what’s important and what isn’t; what’s the news and what’s extraneous.

All strikes, ergo, are not equal. It’s not about numbers or humanity, it’s about how it impacts the folk bringing the news — and those consuming it.

Which — surprise! — isn’t as big a universe as all the people outside it.

Forget the numbers for a minute. Next time you’re at an airport, have a look at the flight schedule, domestic and foreign.

We’re 200 million people, but you can fit all the flights on most days into a regular-sized TV screen or one of those old-fashioned rolling-over flight info displays.

Our biggest airports have roughly the same number of international flights in a day that a regional airport in a developed city has in an hour.

Or just look at the Khi-Isb schedule. One, the biggest commercial city in the country, on a size to rival, and often dwarf, the big boys globally.

The other the political capital of a country where cronyism and access dominate the formal sector, a $250bn jackpot.

But pitch all the numbers together, private airlines and PIA, and you have a daily Khi-Isb-Khi flight schedule that is dwarfed by any remotely similar city combination in China or India.

And yet, PIA was all that mattered. For days. And weeks. For the government. For parliament. For the media. For, we were told, the country itself.

Not really.

You can see the same effect with the metro bus. The rage it has attracted is in some ways an inversion of the demands with PIA: where folk want PIA fixed, no matter the cost, no matter the jobs lost or gained or suspended, they want the metro bus dismantled because it costs too much and to hell with a single job it has created or commuter it has helped.

But think of this: possibly every single word you have ever read about the metro bus or heard on a news channel has been written or uttered by someone who will never, ever use the metro bus. Nor do they even expect that their kids ever will.

The most informed opinions on the metro bus are exactly the cohort that will never use the metro bus, doesn’t want to use it and has little in common with anyone intrigued by or dependent on a metro bus as an actual mode of transport.

Exactly the cohort that will be outraged by billions — billions! — spent a on a bus, but will admiringly discuss the number of air bridges and blingy facilities in a new airport.

Ever hear anyone talk of what the next Islamabad airport will eventually cost? No? But legions can rattle of the numbers — billions! — the metro bus has cost.

Why the metro bus matters though is for another number: the daily commutes on it. And because of the positive political spillover.

A simple question: are metro-bus users more likely voters or PIA sufferers? So if you’ve ever heard a politician denounce the metro bus, you’ve see a politician deeply aware of the bus’s political impact — and worried about his own political standing.

Step back and it’s possible to see the link between hating the metro bus and obsessing over PIA: a privileged class that practises reverse distribution and has perfected the cover-up that it’s in everyone’s interest.

But then, it’s easier to obsess over PIA. And the bus.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2016