Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) spokesman informed the media that as a back-up plan the corporation is in talks with Etihad and Turkish airlines to facilitate passengers going to and coming from the West notably the US, Canada and Europe; and additionally has arranged four Boeing 747s to bring back 2000 stranded pilgrims from Jeddah. This statement brings to mind three obvious concerns. First, if there was a back-up plan in place then it should have come into effect on the first day that flight operations ceased for after all the strike was planned and announced well in advance. Second what about passengers scheduled to travel to and from countries other than the West and Saudi Arabia and, finally, what about PIA’s stalled cargo operations, including export of perishables and transport of items within the country?
It is indeed unfortunate that this latter concern which would have significant implications on our foreign exchange earnings as well as on domestic economic activity have been ignored by the PML-N government considering the fact that the party has always defined itself as pro-business. Data suggest that the daily volume of fruit and vegetable shipments to other countries through PIA is worth around 100,000 dollars per day which implies that the loss is 300,000 dollars and rising with every day of stalled PIA operations. Considering that these are perishable goods with a shelf life of no more than a week, therefore, there is an urgent need to include these shipments in ongoing negotiations with other airlines.
Exporters revealed to Business Recorder that they have visited the cargo offices to get reclaim their goods for possible export through other carriers but these offices are not being manned and hence exporters of perishable items are deeply concerned that they would have to suffer a major financial loss with each additional day the strike continues. And they point out that their foreign buyers are not likely to place their orders with them in future as markets once lost take a long time in reinstating orders. Given that Pakistan’s exports are already declining due to flawed economic policies, including high cost of energy, delays in tax refunds as well as law and order problems, the PIA strike and its handling so far by the federal government is merely making matters worse.
Be that as it may, until the day before the commencement of the strike the government did appear to have the situation under control when it convinced the pilots’ association to continue the flight operations, albeit under protest. However, after the killing of two PIA staff members on the first day of the strike, the earlier agreement with the pilots naturally collapsed, and at this point in time instead of defusing the justified anger for the deaths, members of the executive, including the Prime Minister, the Information Minister as well as other members of the Prime Minister’s media team, appear to have drawn battle lines with the protesters as well as members of the opposition by blaming the situation on “politicisation” of events. This effectively has shifted the narrative from privatisation to murder by the state.
Anti-privatisation protests are not uncommon – within or outside Pakistan – but appropriate measures to limit their negative fallout are necessary and, without doubt, absolutely no casualties is a basic rule that has to be strictly adhered to. This would have necessitated no live ammunition to law enforcement agencies while water cannons and tear gas are acceptable. Unfortunately in this country with terrorism a real and still present danger, one doubts if the law enforcement agencies would have agreed to contain the protests without live ammunition. Thus, granted that the situation was made all the more difficult within the current security situation, the government should have further explored a possible settlement with the staff and instead of holding press conferences.