Dawn Editorial with topic background, Vocabulary (April 30, 2021)
Questionable PIA plan
THE plan to split the loss-making PIA into two companies to revive the national flag carrier has been tried before — and failed. The Nawaz Sharif government, which had devised the plan in 2015, was forced to back off because of strong protests from the employees and opposition political parties. Even if the PTI government does not face similar resistance from the airline’s employees — and opposition from its political rivals — what guarantee is there that the company’s fortunes will revive? With the government paying billions from taxpayers’ money to scrap the bulk of the national airline’s liabilities of Rs460bn, it is crucial that the details of the revival plan are shared with the public for debate and wider consensus. There are still people who believe that PIA can be turned around without having to split it.
PIA has declined mainly because of its flawed aviation policies that gave foreign airlines unfettered access to Pakistan’s market without the country securing reciprocal concessions; poor management; years of little investment; bureaucratic interference; and last but not the least, uncooperative labour unions linked with political parties. But successive governments have chosen the easier course of holding overstaffing in the airline responsible for its downfall instead of focusing on all issues and resolving them. The main theme of the suggested plan does not seem any different. It seeks to divide PIA into a ‘good’ company with fewer financial liabilities and employees on its roll, and its ‘bad’ clone loaded with unwanted staff to be laid off in future and most liabilities to be paid off later with taxpayers’ money. The ultimate goal remains the same: get rid of excess staff and unburden the company of its existing liabilities. How the ‘good’ PIA will be a better-managed entity than its parent company is anyone’s guess. The proposed options for overhauling the national flag carrier to transform it into a financially viable entity include human resource restructuring through the voluntary separation scheme, engaging aviation industry experts, modernising the fleet, rationalising routes, product development and enhancing revenues. Which part of this plan is difficult to execute within the existing framework? Rather than experimenting anew, the better idea would be to bring in a professional management with a sound business plan and allow it full freedom to take the necessary decisions to turn the airline around. Before that, the government needs to engage its employees and other stakeholders to secure their buy-in for the future roadmap.
EASY access to and the low prices of cigarettes and other tobacco products is a key reason why their use is so widespread in the country. There are reportedly at least 30m tobacco consumers in Pakistan, across all ages and social backgrounds; they end up costing the national exchequer at least Rs615bn every year, or 1.6pc of GDP, in terms of the overall toll on the economy and health infrastructure. The habit of smoking alone comprises a massive 8.3pc of the country’s overall health expenditure that is already critically stretched. It is for this very reason that the WHO rightly recommends imposing a tax that is at least 70pc of the retail price of the cigarette packet. However, the lax tax structure in Pakistan enables tobacco companies to sell cigarettes and other products at cheaper rates while still earning huge profits. It is ironic that the tobacco industry only contributes around Rs120bn to the national economy in terms of taxes but extracts a huge toll economically. However, instead of considering options for reducing the health and economic burden of tobacco use and taking steps to launch an aggressive campaign to discourage smoking and the use of other tobacco products, the government appears to be going in the opposite direction.
Recently, the federal health ministry dissolved the Tobacco Control Cell and terminated the services of its staff. The cell had been set up in 2007 to take steps for discouraging the use of tobacco products in the country. Even more surprising is the fact that the decision to disband the TCC was taken ahead of World Tobacco Day, observed every year in May. Whatever the reason for this strange decision, it will surely appear to observers that Pakistani policymakers are more sympathetic to the concerns of the tobacco giants than about the health of the population. The authorities may want to revise their decision in line with international guidelines regarding tobacco use and industries in the interest of public health.