Some months ago, I wrote a column about the ‘profits of doom’. (Daily Times, June 19, 2008) I got lambasted for the next few days by people who said I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I should stick to writing about things I knew about instead of trying to “promote a culture of fear”. Further, I was accused of being an ‘armchair critic’ who was “tarnishing Pakistan’s image in the eyes of the world”. One individual went on to say that “in a worst case scenario, Pakistan could always sell some of its ‘family silver’ to overcome its temporary financial turbulence…”
One would like to ask these wonderful, prescient, patriotic people: today, when everything in the country has gone to hell in a hand basket, or is about to, what now? To that gent who was contemplating a garage sale of ‘family silver’, I would like to ask: what ‘family silver’?
There were a couple of banks that overseas investors bought, and if the truth be told, they are today being run far more efficiently and professionally than they have ever before in their chequered histories. Other than that, you haven’t got anything left that anybody would care to buy, and even if they did, they themselves wouldn’t have the money to buy it.
I once received a greeting card that went something like this: “Son, I was going to give you a Bentley, a flat in London and a lifelong membership to the Yacht Club, but decided instead to impart a little secret that could get you all that and more by remembering just two words: Self Reliance!” It is this piece of advice given a long time ago that has prompted this piece.
Take Pakistan Railways. That it is still running with its antiquated management and operational system is a miracle. It is a disaster on wheels ready to happen. The famous railway stations are now sad remnants of a time when train travel in the subcontinent was an adventure, a gateway to discover the sights and sounds of this marvellous land.
Time has passed them by. Sixty years is a long time to refit and upgrade the terminals that could have become fine examples of traveller comfort and convenience. Sadly that didn’t happen and they went the way of despair and decay. EM Forster called them “…our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! We return.”
No one is going to listen to advice. Especially to advice that appears in columns. That is because it is free. So here is some more: if you can’t privatise it, don’t penalise it, ‘provincialise’ it! How is that for a neologism?
Let each of the four provinces take responsibility for running the railways, upgrading it and marketing it. Each of the provinces will take pride in giving it their own unique identity. Watch it grow as a shining example of what a new breed of management and marketing executives can do to turn a failing institution of rocking stock into a dynamic engine of growth and new ideas.
Anything that deals with bringing people together and allows the youth an opportunity of facilitating the public with unparalleled service so they can travel in comfort and safety has got to be a challenge that the luckless youth will grasp with both hands. If only they are every called upon to do so. The Royal British Rail — one of the finest railway systems in the world, of which the Pakistan Railways is a distant progeny — used to have a marvellous slogan to exhort its people to travel by train: “Let the train take the strain”, a concept they passed on to its myriad partners as they privatised the system with success.
I still remember my first flight on board a PIA Super Constellation. I was 10 and flying to visit my father in Chittagong via Dhaka. I distinctly recall that in command of the flight that day was a Captain Shaukat. About an hour or so into the flight, I remember observing one of the giant engine propellers lazily imitating a windmill compared to the full throttle blur of the remaining engines. Some twenty minutes later, a starboard engine followed suit. Now we were flying on two engines. Sure enough, the captain calmly announced:
“Ladies and gentlemen, due to some technical reasons, there will be a change in our flight time. We will be touching down at Dhaka’s Tejgaon Airport about two hours later than we had anticipated. Our flight attendants will attend to your comfort. Here is some flight information for you meanwhile, our flight path is taking us over Delhi…”
The cabin attendants prepared to serve lunch when the very important gent sitting next to me started to get a little agitated. He asked one of the flight attendants that he wanted to speak to the Captain. She politely advised him that the Captain was busy, but she would convey his message. Two minutes later, with no sign of the Captain, he firmly reminded her again. This time, she headed straight for the flight deck and appeared with the Captain, a diminutive man who looked larger than life to me with the four gold stripes encircling his sleeve.
“How can I help you?”
“Well, I want to know that if we are flying so close to Delhi, why are you not landing there instead of flying all the way to Dhaka on two engines?”
“Well, if you wanted to visit Delhi, then you are obviously on the wrong flight, sir. As for my not opting to land at Delhi, I am in command of this aircraft and I have decided that it can safely make it to Dhaka on even two engines. Will there be anything else?”
“I am a Joint Secretary and I will be taking the matter up with your Chairman.”
“Please do. My cabin crew will attend to your comfort.”
Having made his point, the Captain went back to flying his plane, ‘self esteem’ being the natural adjunct to ‘self reliance’.
I do not know to this day what the outcome of that exchange was, but some twelve years later, I took another PIA flight, heading westwards this time. In command was none other than one Captain Shaukat. I observed him as he entered the cabin during the flight to chat with a passenger. He hadn’t changed in size but he had grown in stature in the eyes of an impressionable ten-year-old years ago.
I will leave you with an observation about a certain bureaucratic quirk that has always made my blood boil. It is the demeaning practice of a government servant who, while signing off on his official files, throws them on the floor, to be picked up by a poor grovelling chaprasi or some clerk who is serving under him. What a terrible way to treat another human being. If this practice is not stopped by the ‘Gazetted Class I Officers’, one of these days some tired, impoverished soul, who may have nothing else in life except his dignity, is going to wipe the floor with the Sahib, or something much worse.
There is something known as an ‘In’ and an ‘Out’ tray. Learn to use it.
Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com