Condemned forever

Updated April 30, 2018


ELON Musk’s electric car and energy storage company, Tesla, posted a loss of $675.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. The company posted a loss of $121m for the same period in 2016. Isn’t that a perfect case for taking suo motu action and asking Mr Musk what is going on?

Those who have a deeper understanding of the technology Tesla works on would know that losses might not be a true indicator of a company’s health. The Obama administration provided Tesla with a $465m loan to work on its environment-friendly technology, and the company has paid back the principal amount as well as the mark-up.

But had it been Pakistan, this could never have happened.

Bureaucrats would have embezzled a sizeable portion of the loan even before disbursement and only some paltry amount would have been spent on actual technology. Even if spending had been scrupulous, a couple of media reports about the quarterly losses would have prompted a suo motu notice followed by a stay order, bringing progress to a complete halt.

What does it take to turn a loss-making enterprise around? A lot of planning, a lot of hard work — and time. Yes, a lot of time. Pakistan Railways has been posting losses of billions and, recently, the chief justice asked the railways team to explain the losses. The example of former Indian Railways minister Lalu Prasad and the turnaround of the country’s railways that he accomplished during his tenure, despite being a layman, was cited. However, the fact is that even that was not an overnight transformation. A close analysis of Lalu Prasad’s transformation of the Indian Railways would reveal that many of the policies were already put in place by his predecessor Nitesh Kumar, and Mr Prasad — to his credit — ensured continuity.

Impartially, the Railways has done well over the last few years.

Over-simplification is a curse for better governance, especially when it comes to engineering and management issues related to a big enterprise like Pakistan Railways. There are a lot of things that must be considered before tarring everyone with the same brush. If we impartially analyse the indicators, Pakistan Railways has done well over the last few years. But we don’t want to see it. The civil servants who keep the wheels turning despite being paid peanuts are often treated like the biggest criminals in courts, be it the courts of the political kings or more conventional judicial courts.

Why are they perpetually condemned?

Read: Putting railways back on track in Pakistan

Can the management of Pakistan Railways go for a massive downsizing by laying off surplus employees? If it does, would there be another suo motu action? Can they sell railways’ land to generate revenue to fuel growth? Can Pakistan Railways discontinue its traffic on less profitable routes and Eid trains at subsidised fares? Can the management focus on freight trains only, and pass legislation to use the railways for freight transport as overloaded trucks damage roads?

The answer to all these questions would be ‘no’ and that is where the problem lies. Taking cognisance of the criticism of the sluggish pace at which our legal system dispenses justice, the chief justice recently clarified that framing laws to expedite the legal processes does not fall in the domain of the Supreme Court. It must be realised that the same limitation applies to other departments as well.

The role of the media in reporting audit reports of government departments has been a bane rather than a boon. Sensationalism gets the better of facts. Audit objections are mostly procedural; a misappropriation of billions does not necessarily mean that it is corruption. If the auditors are not well taken care of, there is an audit objection looming.

For example, if a department re­­ce­i­ves 10 new vehicles, then one must go to the director audit because otherwise all might be dec­lared unlawful by raising an audit objection. There is a need to disband the old-school audit department and hire independent firms for audit of big public enterprises as their processes are far more transparent, professional and timely. Till such time, audit objections should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The operating ratio of Pakistan Railways has decreased progressively from 203.59 per cent in 2011-12 to 124.92pc in 2016-17, which is indeed indicative of things going in the right direction. Expecting an overnight turnaround shows a lack of understanding of the scale of the organisation. Can the judiciary clear the backlog of cases in couple of months?

Lastly, the way sometimes very diligent officers from various government departments are treated in courts these days leaves very little incentive for the young aspirants of the civil service. Millennials are a different breed; they respect capability rather than authority. So, let us not disillusion talented individuals by portraying them as Gotham’s Batman.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2018