Not being privatised
In the brave new world that followed the end of history, many have remarked how the labels of left and right are not applicable anymore. Yet, one can find instances where the spectrum, to an extent, still exists. What passes off as the mainstream left in the country – the PPP, ANP and a smattering of regional parties – is, for instance, in favour of tax reform like the RGST. The parties of the bazaar – the Muslim Leagues and the middle-class MQM – are against it.
Another example is how to deal with public sector enterprises. A drain on the exchequer, these white elephants have proved to be bottomless pits as far as funds are concerned. But as the cabinet meeting that was held in Peshawar the other day served to show, the PPP government does not have it in it to pull the plug. Pakistan Railways, Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan International Airlines and Wapda are all off the chopping block with no prospect of privatisation. Instead, orders have been issued to restructure these. A sigh of relief, of course, for the scores of employees who work for these enterprises and the government’s hope that this decision translates into favourable political outcomes.
If you look at it, like all important issues of public policy, a case can be made for keeping these organisations. The PSM, for instance, was never meant to be profitable; its purpose was to provide subsidised steel to the industrial sector. Any attempt to privatise it, therefore, could be construed as anti-industrial. The PIA and Railways, businesses as they might be, ply to commercially unviable destinations only because they view there services as ones that the state should provide to its citizens. Wapda is a utility and its grid covers areas that wouldn’t have made sense, at least initially, to cover. All of these do what states do for their citizens.
But these are all an insufferable drain as well. Organisations like the Railways might have been poorly managed but few realise that its death warrant was signed the day the NLC got the cargo contracts which were the Railways mainstay; the immense expansion of the road network also should serve to take away unrealistic expectations. The PIA can be managed well but not without massive layoffs at this top-heavy organisation. The same is true for Wapda.
It is indeed possible to save these organisations but they won’t be. The capacity of the Pakistani state to deal with these challenges is limited. It is imperative for governments to draw the line somewhere and take some mature decisions that are not based on electoral calculus.