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Express Tribune Editorials – 4th February 2016

The chaos at PIA

It seems that the PML-N government has still not realised that its actions vis-a-vis the strike action by PIA’s unions have the potential to lead it onto a path that it may eventually regret taking. The events that have swirled around the airline in the last 48 hours have been tragic at the human level and disastrous financially with the national carrier having ceased all domestic and international flights on February 3 as the strike by the unions entered a second day. There is still no confirmation regarding who fired the fatal shots on February 2 that killed three people protesting the government’s action to partially privatise the airline.

In the wake of the deaths, the PIA chairman has now resigned his post with immediate effect, taking responsibility for the violence. Undeterred by the extreme hostility of the unions, the prime minister has made a personal intervention saying that strikers would be punished with jail as they have flouted the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952, and those that worked normally would be rewarded, though with what and under which ordinance was unclear. As is evident, the government and the unions are deeply entrenched with both sides carving bleeding chunks off an already-beached whale. What the employee unions completely fail to acknowledge is that PIA is desperately in need of reshaping. With over 19,000 employees (November 2015 figure) and over 700 employees per aircraft, it is simply unsustainable. With flight operations suspended, private airlines are now having a field day, and one of them promptly doubled the one-way fare between Karachi and Islamabad, rank profiteering if ever there was.

Notwithstanding the intransigence of the unions, the government now needs to realise that the invocation of the Essential Services legislation has backfired and that the PIA engineering division has the capacity — and probably the will — to keep all aircraft grounded for as long as it wants. Accusations from the government’s side that the strike is politically motivated are as yet unproven. Meanwhile, the travelling public suffers massive loss of utility; business suffers as does the national image internationally. All sides need to stand back, take a deep breath and stop butchering what ought to be a national asset. Common sense must prevail.

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Getting connected

Connecting Pakistan to the internet has been a painfully slow process, but there are now indications that connectivity generally, and not just through PCs and laptops, is rising significantly, courtesy of smart mobile devices and the rollout of 3G services. The number of broadband subscriptions has now passed the 25 million mark. The cellular service providers had a bumper month in December 2015 when they sold more than 1.5 million high-speed mobile internet connections, this according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. There are now 26.3 million mobile broadband connections which is a startling six per cent increase on the previous month, November. Whether such levels of growth are sustainable remains to be seen, but the figures suggest that Pakistan is becoming more connected by the month.

Other technologies such as DSL, WiMax and Fibre-to-the-home were measured as stagnant in the same monitoring period, another indicator of the primacy of the mobile phone over all other types of internet connection. Mobile internet users now account for one-fifth of cellular users nationally. This number can only continue upwards as saturation is yet distant. There are around 200 million people in Pakistan and about 13 per cent of them are now net-connected. Some of the implications of this explosion in connectivity are not immediately obvious and bear closer examination. There have been widespread anecdotal reports of mobile phone usage, particularly in rural areas, leading to a rise in limited literacy, with people of no formal education using Urdu and Roman Urdu scripts to communicate via SMS services. How this might be capitalised by expanding their literacy via an online connection is yet to be explored. There is also considerable evidence that retail sales via the internet have grown in rural areas. Whilst the numbers are interesting, it is the underlying social changes — and benefits — that mark the humble ‘mobile’ as a major change agent for rich and poor alike in the country.

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Understanding Balochistan

The past, present and future for Balochistan have all preoccupied governments of Pakistan for decades. The largest and most-thinly populated province is underdeveloped and has not benefited from the abundant natural resources that lie within its borders. In recent years, it has become a battleground for separatist, ethnic and sectarian interests. Terrorists of many adherences have made the lives of many a misery and killed countless others since 2004. The use of force by multiple actors has led to huge suffering for the people of the province. All of this was tacitly or explicitly acknowledged in a presentation of startling candour by Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on February 2.

A two-day seminar on “Prospects of Peace and Prosperity in Balochistan” heard General Raheel say that the province had become “a hotbed of proxy wars” which were a part of a “regional and global grand strategy”. He called Balochistan a most complex problem — it is — and then went off-piste to talk of economic, ethnographic and sectarian divides, demonstrating a grasp of the big picture, the landscape beyond the military perspective, that has marked him out as a distinctly singular player in the recent history of governance in Pakistan. The army chief also talked about the poorly developed infrastructure, extremes of poverty, desperately poor education and health facilities and lack of jobs — all of which have contributed to the parlous state of the province. There was nothing that was particularly new in what General Raheel had to say, but it was unusual to hear all this coming from a military source, at least in terms of an understanding of the wider problems that are not the core business of the soldiery. The army in the form of the Frontier Works Organisation has been doing its bit of late, and by the end of 2016 will have completed 870km of roads in the province since 2014. Without burnishing the general’s image unduly, one might wonder why the civilian government wasn’t able to undertake such initiatives.

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