The issue of conversion of Pakistan International Airline Corporation into Pakistan International Airline Limited Company and sale of its 26% shares to the private sector, wrongly being construed as privatisation of the national carrier, continues to resonate in the national Assembly with opposition parties hurling scathing criticism at it. The Pakistan International Airlines (Conversion) Bill 2016 passed by the National Assembly is also likely to be tabled in the Senate this week where opposition parties have a majority and are expected to give tough time to the government. Regrettably, the stance of the political parties on the issue lacks any economic rationale and stems from subservience to their narrow political objectives.

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The ugly situation that developed in the wake of the strike observed by the PIA employees at the call of the Joint Action Committee, unfortunately had political overtones rather than being purely an issue of trade unionism. Some of the leaders in the PIA trade unions reportedly have links with political parties who have been encouraging them to launch a protest movement against the government action with a view to settle score with it.

PPP and MQM feel hard done in the wake of the Rangers operation in Karachi and are desperate to look for opportunities to pressurize the government to back off. PTI which has faced reverses after reverses since its rigging campaign and was struggling to revive its fortunes has found it convenient to have another round of confrontation with the government and continue with its brand of disruptive politics. Imran Khan attended the protest rally of the PIA strikers to express solidarity with their cause urging the government to stop the privatisation of the airline. He also put forth a charter of demands to the government including non-privatisation of PIA and threatened that in case those were not met by the government his party would launch a country wide movement against the government policies.

Interestingly he announced the charter of demands at a public rally whereas the appropriate forum for such demands is the parliament in a democratic dispensation. Probably he does not believe in democracy and the sanctity of the parliament as is demonstrated by the fact that during the last two and half years he has rarely attended the parliament, which was tantamount to betrayal of the public mandate. He remains wedded to the street politics which has disruptive consequences.

The proposal by the opposition leader that PIA employees be given Rs.300 billion to revive the airline sounds quite bizarre. This recipe has been tried in the past by successive governments with the same results. According to Einstein, doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is insanity. PPP was in power for five years and the question arises: why did it fail to stem the rot in the national carrier or find a plausible solution to this festering problem?

Political parties in the opposition have a right to differ with the government policies and criticizse them on rational basis. At the same time they are supposed to present meaningful alternatives to the opposed policies. In a democratic dispensation the ultimate objective of the government and the opposition has to be the strengthening of national causes and interests. In the case of PIA what the opposition is doing is simply politics sans sanity.

The process of privatisation is a vital national issue and therefore needs to be understood in the context of historical perspective and the rationale behind it. The PPP which is now vehemently opposing the privatization of PIA was the architect of the nationalization of the industrial units during the regime of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; an initiative which was taken on purely political considerations rather than being rooted in sound economic rationale. The measure undoubtedly proved disastrous for the economy and there are no two opinions about its debilitating impact on the economic profile of the country. Over the years the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) became a burden on the economy instead of contributing to its health and progress. Therefore the step badly needed to be reversed. Even Benazir Bhutto during her second term as Prime Minister privatized 20 industrial units, one financial institution, one electric power plant and 12% shares of Pakistan Telecommunications Ltd.

It is estimated that the SOEs are collectively incurring an annual loss of between Rs.400-500 billion; more than 25% of the total revenue receipts of the government in a fiscal year. Keeping them afloat, therefore, constitutes a huge drain on our precious national resources which could have been invested in vitally needed projects of socio-economic development. PIA is facing losses to the tune of around Rs.30 billion per year. Its total liabilities stand at around Rs.150 billion, while total accumulated losses have exceeded Rs.220 billion. During The tenure of this government PIA has received Rs.16 billion cash support. These entities owe the current state of affairs to inefficient management, corruption, political interference by successive regimes and recruitment of excessive personnel on the basis of political affiliations rather than actual needs of the organisations.

The apprehensions of the PIA employees are absolutely unfounded. First thing needed to be understood is that the Ordinance is not about total privatisation of PIA. It only aims at transforming the corporation into a company facilitating public-private partnership. According to the Ordinance, employment conditions for employees would remain unchanged. All stakeholders, employees of every grade and category have been transferred to the company, PIACL, with the same designation and on the same terms and conditions as they held in PIAC. The PIACL has succeeded to all the assets, liabilities, duties and obligations of PIAC.

Many other countries including Britain have taken such decisions to rectify the economic maladies and improving the health of the economy. The decision to privatize the non-profitable SOEs is economically prudent and would contribute tremendously to the rectification of the maladies afflicting the economy and nudging the process of economic revival. The process of sustained economic development is inconceivable without leading role of the private sector. A close look at the history of developed nations amply testifies to this maxim. The emphasis of the present government on dominant role by the private sector and the strategy for macro-economic structural reforms has a proven track record and appreciated by almost all the international lending and rating institutions and agencies respectively. The opposition therefore needs to adopt a nationalistic outlook on such crucial issues. The fact is that the previous government failed to address this issue fearing political backlash which has further precipitated the situation. To rectify the maladies tough decision are needed to be taken in the best national interest and if the present government is showing the spunk to resolve this festering problem, the opposition must avoid playing the role of a spoiler.