THE rot in Pakistan’s aviation industry is deep and extends far beyond the national flag carrier. Now the FIA has registered a case at its Corporate Crime Circle, Karachi, against the private airline Shaheen Air International and arrested its director. The action has been taken following an inquiry initiated by the Civil Aviation Authority lodging a written complaint alleging that the airline had caused a loss of over Rs1bn to the national exchequer. According to an FIA official, the investigation found that SAI had defaulted on paying CAA’s flight operation charges and levies from March 2018 till date. The airline’s operations were suspended in October 2018; and even as 2,800 employees clamoured for their outstanding salaries, SAI’s owners fled abroad. The charges against the airline management are serious, and the case must be taken to its conclusion. While this is a different issue from that of the pilots ‘dubious’ licences — revealed in a bombshell statement by Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan last month — it nevertheless is also a manifestation of the lack of fiscal and operational discipline within the aviation industry as a whole. At the time, eight SAI planes were already grounded for being in “poor condition”. In December 2015, a Boeing 737-400 operated by the airline suffered severe damage upon landing in Lahore; 10 passengers were injured. A few months earlier, five of its aircraft had been grounded because of recurring safety concerns.
The minister’s revelation that 262 Pakistani pilots had suspect credentials — in tandem with the initial investigation report on the PK-8303 air crash — has cast the role played by the industry regulator, the CAA, in an extremely poor light. According to Mr Khan, 141 of the pilots concerned had been flying for PIA, 10 for Serene Air, nine for Air Blue, and the rest for chartered plane services and flying clubs. On Saturday, the CAA apprised the Supreme Court of the measures it is taking to prevent unauthorised access to its licensing and examination system. The ‘dubiousness’ of the licences evidently stems from the fact that certain pilots had had proxies sit the exam for them. There are also allegations that corrupt elements within CAA have deliberately made the examination process perverse and convoluted, making recourse to unfair means — for a price, of course — more tempting. While the pilots are certainly not blameless, the onus was on the regulator to ensure the integrity of its testing protocols.
A large number of pilots have been grounded for apparently having obtained their licences through questionable means, as they should be, but it is also worth asking what action the CAA is taking against its own personnel. Any investigation, to be credible and untainted by accusations of ulterior motives, must unearth those involved in corrupt practices at the CAA and sanction them accordingly. The festering problems in the aviation industry need a root-and-branch overhaul.
THE decision to restore the transit trade facility for Afghan exports to India through the Wagah border should go a long in reinforcing Islamabad’s political and economic ties with Kabul. Islamabad has already resumed bilateral trade and the transit trade facility at all the border crossings with landlocked Afghanistan, which largely depends on Pakistan for its trade with most of the world. The resumption of the transit trade facility via Wagah will help strife-ridden Afghanistan immediately boost its exports to India and support its economy. Pakistan, which has played a critical role in the US-Afghan Taliban peace accord, had restricted bilateral trade with Afghanistan while completely stopping transportation of Afghan goods to India through Wagah under the 2010 Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement in March. The decision was taken as part of the lockdown enforced across the country to halt the spread of Covid-19. However, the suspension of transit trade was viewed with suspicion in Kabul and had drawn criticism from both the Afghan administration and traders who were forced to airlift their cargo at a much higher cost or use the longer sea route to ship their goods to India. Many saw it as a violation of the APTTA owing to the trust deficit between the two nations.
The APTTA, which was brokered by the Obama administration to replace the outdated 1965 accord, is also considered ‘incomplete’ by many in Kabul because it does not extend the transit facility to India to ship its goods to Afghanistan and beyond because of fractious Pakistan-India ties. Indeed, a joint South Asia-Central Asia corridor offers huge potential for increasing regional trade. At the time that the APTTA was concluded, many were hopeful of an eventual reduction in tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi, and expected both nations to extend transit facilities to each other. Sadly, it has not happened. Instead, the two sides’ fragile economic relationship has deteriorated further in recent years, owing largely to the brutality of Indian forces in India-held Kashmir, thus pushing away the goal of a free-trade area in South Asia. India, being the regional economic powerhouse, should realise that its growing disputes with its neighbours are keeping it and the region from realising their true economic potential. The sooner it starts mending fences with smaller neighbours, the better it will be for the future of the people of the region that houses the most number of the world’s poor.
Eid livestock markets
ALONG with being a key religious festival and cultural event, the Eidul Azha sacrifice is a major engine of economic activity in Pakistan, with a multibillion-rupee economy of its own. From livestock traders to butchers and the tanning industry, all have major stakes in the sale of sacrificial animals. However, this year — like all other areas of life — routine religious and economic activities related to Eidul Azha will have to adapt to the reality of the novel coronavirus. Primarily, the authorities will need to prevent big gatherings in livestock markets where men and beasts in large numbers converge. As experts have warned, this is a matter of great concern where the spread of Covid-19 in the country is concerned. The prime minister himself has said that if people are ‘careless’ during Eidul Azha the number of cases in the country could spike, while some doctors’ associations have called for cattle markets not to be held. Meanwhile, the National Command and Operation Centre on Monday decided to allow smaller livestock markets — but greater in number apparently to prevent crowding — on the outskirts of cities, with ‘strict’ SOPs in place.
While on paper this seems like a workable solution to balance religious and economic requirements with precautions against the virus, the fact of the matter is that SOPs are widely being flouted across the country where markets have been set up. With Eid just over two weeks away, the authorities must enforce the SOPs to ensure that those rushing towards livestock mandis don’t become super spreaders of Covid-19 upon their return to their neighbourhoods. Children must strictly be kept away from the markets, and instead of whole brigades descending upon mandis to choose an animal, one person should be enough. Moreover, there is wisdom in the suggestion of offering collective sacrifice to streamline matters, while organising qurbani in mohallas and on the streets should strictly be off limits this year to prevent the spread of the virus and to maintain hygiene.