PSM: Russians and Chinese learnt it the hard way, When will we?
Nearly 14 years ago in 2006 the then Chief Justice of Pakistan reversed the government’s decision to privatise Pakistan Steel Mills and that was the beginning of the end of Gen Musharraf’s rule. People and nations learn from the mistakes of others, some from their own but there are some who learn from neither.
We Pakistanis generally fall in the unfortunate last category. In 2006, this Steel mill was being sold for US$362 million, nearly Rs 600 billion at the current rate of exchange. A brand new one with of the same capacity could at that time be installed for $500 million. So, the government and its professionals thought they were getting a very good price for a nearly 35-year-old unit. But not so our the then Chief Justice who for reasons best known to him first decided to call on President Musharraf to discuss the case who suggested he (CJ) discuss it with the then-Attorney General who better understood the legal issues.
Why would a Chief Justice call on the President to discuss a case is beyond me. Reportedly this was done and it was agreed that the process of privatisation must not be impeded but the decision later given was not what had been reportedly discussed. And that set in motion a chain of events that is now a not too bright chapter of our political history. On Friday, the Honourable Supreme Court was informed of the current financial status of the mills. Separately, the Minister for Industries informed the media that the accumulated debt of the mills stood at Rs 230 billion and an additional Rs 40 billion was required to pay the employees as redundancy including Rs 20 billion to those already retired. It has also paid some Rs 35 billion in wages since the closure of the mills by the PMLN government in 2015. According to a report submitted to the Supreme Court, it has a little under 10000 employees against the actual requirement of 1000. Ten times more than its needs. And interestingly, it had 27000 employees in 1991. Thanks to the complete politicisation since 1985 and the resultant unwanted recruitment by PPP, PMLN and MQM.
And yet, as the country reels under its worst economic meltdown under an unprecedented pandemic, we hear voices calling against privatisation of this white elephant. Do we as a nation appreciate the economic mess we are in? I fear not. Do we realise what it means when we are told that Pakistan’s fiscal deficit has increased from 7.5 percent to 9.4 percent, that our exports are down from $25.5 billion to $21/22 billion, that our remittances are down to $ 20 billion from $ 23 billion, our tax revenue is down to Rs3905 billion from Rs 4800 billion and Pakistanis living in poverty is to increase to 33.5 percent from 24.3 percent? That the country is to lose nearly three million jobs as a result of this pandemic. Thus it is unbelievable that even today there will be two opinions regarding the need to privatise this unit that is bleeding the state year after year for the last 14 years.
Do our novices believe that the culture for our governance will change overnight and there will be no political interference in running this unit if the government is pressured to pump in another few hundred billion into it? Should we do that just to keep a few thousand employees in place? If I have understood Minister Hammad Azhar right, each employee will get nearly three years salaries as redundancy payout. I wonder if such a generous golden handshake has ever been given anywhere in a similar situation. I hope and earnestly pray that all those who matter consider this crucial first major step towards privatisation in the larger national economic context to plug one major source of economic haemorrhage and let the government concentrate on governance rather than on business management. The Russians and the Chinese learnt it the hard way. When will we?
The writer is Former Federal Information Secretary.
–Courtesy Balochistan Time