The most recent move by the PML-N government to privatise PIA and the Pakistan Steel Mills is not the first. A number of national institutions have already been privatised but, the case of PIA and the PSM is substantially more sensitive. It is no secret that both the PIA and PSM are in absolute despair and have accrued mammoth losses.
For years we have heard persistent claims by the government regarding economic prosperity and corruption-free management. Numerous projects have been launched but few have been realised. Billions have been spent on the metro bus project but at the same time the PSM has been shut down and PIA has accrued exponential loss.
The PSM is Pakistan’s largest industrial unit, born at a time when foreign powers were bent upon restricting Pakistan’s economic progress. As of today, the PSM has been sealed for over 32 months and its 12,500 employees have not been paid for six months. This comes at a time when demand for steel is at its highest with CPEC in full swing and domestic construction on the rise. Even in the region, demand for steel is rising. Domestic demand is being met through imports hence accruing to the existing current account deficit. The PSM has the capacity to produce three million tons annually. So the obvious question is: why can the government not utilise this national asset?
If the PSM is not revived, over ten thousand Pakistanis will lose their livelihood – leading to a ripple effect on the economy. The PSM has tremendous opportunity and potential to contribute to Pakistan’s economic progress. All that is required is political will and clean intentions.
The case of PIA raises even more questions. The national flag carrier has historically been a source of pride for every Pakistani. Once considered as a leading global airline, ironically it was PIA that helped establish renowned airlines such as Emirates. Even though demand for air travel is increasing, PIA has been consistently shutting down vital routes such as New York. This has caused great distress to the Pakistani-American diaspora who are now facing increasing hurdles to bring back dead bodies of their loved ones.
While other domestic airlines are increasing profits, PIA was severely affected by acquiring aircraft and services from foreign airlines at exorbitant rates. On a recent trip to Islamabad I had to confirm twice that I was on the correct aircraft because it was carrying the flag of Vietnam and I was greeted by Vietnamese staff. With rising unemployment in our own country, why are we outsourcing jobs to foreigners?
If PIA is lost not only will 15,000 citizens lose their livelihood, we will also lose key domestic routes such as Gwadar along with other smaller cities that a private airline may not cater to. It is pertinent to mention here that if PIA is privatised our nation will also lose valuable assets such as the Roosevelt Hotel in New York and Hotel Scribe in Paris with a combined worth exceeding a billion dollars.
Pakistan has already given up assets such as Gwadar Port and PTCL to foreign entities. The obvious dilemma is that these foreign entities work for profit rather than in the interest of Pakistan. I firmly believe that each citizen must hold the government accountable and ensure that strategic assets are gained rather than handed over to foreign entities in this manner.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat and currently chairman of an NGO.