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Express Tribune Editorials – 22th March 2016

The great airport shambles

Conventional wisdom has it that airports need to be connected to the cities that they serve by some sort of transport infrastructure, with road and rail being the favoured options globally. This being Pakistan we do things a little differently. The airport currently under construction that will replace the airport at Islamabad thus far has no link to that city beyond the necessary construction arterials. It also has no water or electricity, which are equally seen as essential utilities when it comes to running a large international airport. The project was approved in March 2008 at a cost of Rs36.86 billion, now risen to Rs81.17 billion and with no date on even a far horizon as to when the project may enter service. As an exercise in How Not To build An Airport, it has been a howling success.

The project has been a succession of barking-mad failures at every level, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) gave a distinctly downbeat report to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), with some startling revelations therein. The two runways cannot be used simultaneously because they have been built too close together contrary to international standards, thus somewhat defeating the entire object of the exercise. Project managers have come and gone with depressing regularity, there are 17 different contractors and the CAA has now admitted that the PC1 was flawed in the first place. The airport is so far from Islamabad that accommodation has had to be built for those that will work there as the commute is too long. The projected opening is put by the CAA at 2017, a date the PAC was openly and rightly sceptical of. The PAC was of the opinion that it could be another two or three years before the facility was operational — a view we would regard as itself unduly optimistic. The building of the new Islamabad airport has been in a shambles from beginning to date, when depending on who you believe it is either 60 per cent or 85 per cent complete. Nobody knows for sure one way or the other. A new airport for Islamabad? Dream on.

The dictatorship deficit

It is all too easy to criticise the incumbent and past democratic governments for their failures. They are many, varied and seemingly play on an electoral loop, constantly repeating with the lessons of history unlearned. There may be a reason for this as suggested by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali who was speaking at a ceremony organised by the Endowment Fund for the Preservation of Heritage on March 19. His argument was that the successive imposition of martial law has prevented the evolution of democracy and that the majority of the population remains largely ignorant of the real spirit of democracy. This argument has both merit and substance — but it must not be in any way offered as an excuse for the ills of the existing democratic system — which is a pale version of elective feudalism today.

Viewed objectively, democracy has been on a hiding to nothing from the outset. The state came into being with little in the democratic toolbox, zero in terms of coherent political maturity and a struggle for power inside what passed for the political cadre that continues today. The military from the beginning were both the power-brokers and the kingmakers, and when the kings — or queens — failed to deliver then they were sidelined and khaki governance took over. That cycle now appears to be at an end but democracy remains elusive. The balance remains weighted towards the military in most matters governmental; but the civilians are at the very least getting an opportunity to be engaged in the democratic process long enough to move beyond the kindergarten and flinging teddies around the playpen every time there is a disagreement about the colour of the wallpaper. The current dispensation, flawed as it is, is making some significant advances in terms of statecraft and looking beyond a single electoral cycle. It has yet to divest itself of being Punjab-centric and wholly inclusive in provincial terms, and the provincial assemblies themselves can hardly be regarded as mature political entities — but there is an increasingly evident evolution ‘in process’. And democracy everywhere is never anything less than incomplete, a work in progress.

Spare us the hypocrisy

It is rare that we find ourselves in support of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, but in the matter of his criticism of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) protesting the decision to allow ex-president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf to travel abroad — we do. The PPP in its time in office had a long and dishonourable record of kow-towing to Mr Musharraf, indeed supporting him on several issues when it suited its political purposes — the National Reconciliation Ordinance of 2007 (NRO) comes specifically to mind. It was the NRO that ‘facilitated’ the return of Benazir Bhutto — which with a dreadful irony also led to her death. In this latter tragic circumstance, the PPP was less than helpful when it came to pursuing the investigation into the death of Benazir Bhutto; so much so that it was difficult to escape the conclusion that it was keen to protect then-president Musharraf from anything like close investigation.

Political parties tend to have highly selective memories when it comes to their own faults and misdeeds, with both the PML-N and the PPP having far from perfect recall in this matter. At least twice the PML-N had opposed court decisions reversing the refusal to allow him to travel, but the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of removing his name from the Exit Control List and the PML-N chose to comply. While the decision may have its demerits, for the PPP now to cry ‘foul’ and call for street protests is, as the interior minister has said, nothing short of rank hypocrisy given its past positional history regarding Mr Musharraf. It smacks of a political party not so much waving as drowning, and that too in a sea of its own self-inflicted misfortunes. No favours are being done, no votes garnered and the PPP continues a seemingly inexorable slide into national irrelevance. Many feel that the Musharraf exit is justice denied, and it is difficult to refute this belief. However, for the PPP to now create a huge ruckus over the matter makes apparent its duplicity. One can only wish that the party had expended the same level of energy in bringing the former dictator to justice while it was in power that it is now showing in protesting the government’s decision to let him travel abroad.

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