PAKISTAN’S commercial aviation industry is embroiled in a scandal unprecedented in scope. Indeed, the affair of the pilots’ dubious licences has even eclipsed the findings in the preliminary investigation report of the PK-8303 crash. Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan’s stunning admission on Wednesday that of 860 pilots, 262 had appeared in exams through proxies has left not only this country but the world aghast. On Friday, Mr Khan gave further details. Of the 860, he said, 753 were working in Pakistan and an inquiry is underway into their suspect credentials, while the rest are flying for foreign airlines. No less than 450 of the 743 are working in PIA; the remaining are employed by local private airlines, flying clubs, etc. According to him, the 262 pilots found to have taken exams through proxies have been indicted by a board of inquiry and will be barred from flying. The opposition has roundly condemned the minister for bringing these facts into the open. While this will admittedly have a grievous impact on the country’s aviation industry, the public has a right to make an informed choice when it opts to take to the skies.
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association has expressed concern over the “serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator” — and rightly so. The Civil Aviation Authority is solely responsible for licences issued to all pilots receiving their training in Pakistan. Moreover, every airline selects instructors from within the pilots employed by it, who are then approved by the CAA, and the final check flight is monitored by a CAA inspector. In that respect, every licence issued by the CAA is ‘genuine’. The ‘dubiousness’ lies in the fact that certain elements within the CAA, particularly in its licensing and IT departments, have gone beyond international regulatory guidelines to deliberately queer the pitch so as to make the examination procedure perverse and convoluted. The option to take recourse to unfair means thus becomes that much more tempting, enabling pilots to ‘pass’ the exam while corrupt CAA personnel line their pockets. This is not to say that the pilots are blameless, but the buck stops with the regulatory authority.
The PK-8303 tragedy has opened a can of worms: a thorough overhaul is called for, both in PIA and the CAA. Besides the licensing fiasco, there is also the issue of what becomes of investigations into air accidents, and not only the ones that have claimed lives. There have also been several non-fatal incidents in recent years in which inquiries, if begun at all, have been mothballed. Why? To cite but one example, an ATR-42 skidded off the runway at Gilgit airport in July last year. Thankfully, all passengers remained safe, but the aircraft had to be written off. The CAA has much to answer for.
IT was obvious to everyone that the presidential order appointing the prime minister’s adviser on finance as a member of the 10th National Finance Commission and authorising him to preside over the deliberations of the NFC in the absence of the premier, who also holds the finance portfolio, wouldn’t withstand judicial scrutiny. The adviser’s appointment as a stand-in for the federal minister for finance and the illegal TORs seeking to slash provincial shares from federal tax resources anticipated political opposition and legal challenges. Therefore, the Balochistan High Court decision last week invalidating Hafeez Sheikh’s appointment for being unconstitutional wasn’t a surprise. Nor did the ruling against the agenda other than determination of the formulae for vertical and horizontal division of tax resources between the centre and provinces, set in the notification that constituted the new commission, shock anyone. The “President of Pakistan and NFC are bound to fully implement the Constitution … Hence, the federal and provincial governments should utilise joint efforts in order to strengthen the federation rather than racing for a major share of NFC,” the court ruled.
The PTI government has seldom tried to conceal its dislike of devolution of administrative powers to the provinces under the 18th Amendment or their greater fiscal space under the seventh NFC, which continues to operate despite the expiry of its five-year term in 2015. It wasn’t unexpected. The increasing expenditure — especially on account of debt payments, and internal and external security — and shrinking tax collections have widened the resource gap in the past two years. In a contracting economy, the centre is struggling to pay its bills. Even austerity measures and expenditure cuts aren’t helping. Such gimmicks can help only so much. Instead of enlarging the size of the tax pie by widening the net to meet its rising expenditure, the government, like its predecessor, wants the provinces to contribute funds to pay for growing security expenses, SOE losses, subsidies, debt repayments and the development of Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and KP’s tribal districts. Even if the provinces agree to pay 7pc of the undivided tax pool at the cost of their own development as demanded by the centre, the problem will remain. The solution lies in urgently expanding the tax net for doubling the existing tax-to-GDP ratio and not in ambushing the provinces through unconstitutional ways.
Long hot summer
AT the height of the blazing Karachi summer, a grim annual ritual is playing out in the bustling metropolis. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the city and high humidity makes conditions stifling, long power cuts — announced and unannounced — have become routine across the metropolis, heaping further misery upon the frazzled dwellers of Karachi. K-Electric, the city’s sole power supplier, says the additional cuts are due to furnace oil and gas shortages. However, the federal government does not appear to be buying its explanation. The power division, for example, says inadequate distribution and transmission capacity of KE has exacerbated the crisis. The Sindh government, meanwhile, has pointed the finger at Islamabad, blaming it for short fuel supplies. As the stakeholders shift the blame, the people of Karachi have to bear the consequences in suffocating heat.
While load-shedding in the summer months is an excruciating experience every year, this time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, power cuts are putting increased pressure on the people. With partial lockdowns still in place, many people continue to work and study at home. Moreover, many patients are also self-isolating at home, so there is an added urgency to solve the issue without delay. Already there have been protests against the power cuts in several city areas, as people have been compelled to take to the streets due to the scarcity of electricity and water. To prevent further deterioration of law and order, and for the sake of public health and well-being, the crisis needs to be addressed immediately. The KE chief met the Sindh governor on Friday and assured him the situation would be resolved soon, while Nepra has also taken “serious notice” of Karachi’s power crisis. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, all stakeholders — the centre, the Sindh administration as well as KE — need to identify the problem and resolve it quickly so that power cuts are brought down to a bare minimum, or eliminated altogether.