The PTI regime has finally decided to shift the PIA Headquarters from the mega city of Karachi to Islamabad. This measure was in the pipeline for some time. The federal government may have some compelling reasons for its decision but the people of Sindh and Balochistan, the PIA employees and their representative bodies have equally valid reasons to resent the relocation of the national carrier. Apparently, the rightsizing of the PIA which has been incurring huge losses for the past many years did not necessitate the shifting which would involve dislocation of a large number of employees from these two provinces and staggering expenses on the structural, organizational and logistical arrangements to set up  new Headquarters in Islamabad.

The federal government’s decision to relocate PIA in Islamabad needs to be viewed from various aspects – legal, political, economic and social. The representatives of the employees say the government cannot shift the PIA head office as well as the airline’s hub to Islamabad without the parliament amending the Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (PIAC) Act of 2016 quoting its section 7(2) which reads “The Headquarters of the company and any of its subsidiary companies carrying an air transport business shall be at Karachi”. For this amendment, the parliamentarians would require compelling reasons.

The Secretary General of the PIA Officers’ Association as quoted by the press claims ‘there is not a single valid reason to justify the shifting of either the head office or the airline’s hub from Karachi to Islamabadbefore having the PIAC Act amended’. Therefore, he considers the shifting unlawful and very much challengeable in the courts.

The shifting of the large public sector enterprises/departments from Karachi is tantamount to blatant denigration of the significance of the second big province within the federation depriving its people of jobs

Politically too, this is a very sensitive issues. I recall the MQM, in its heyday, was fiercely against the shifting or rightsizing of the National Bank of Pakistan and the PIA. It had employed a large number of its workers in the Bank apart from the Municipal Corporation of Karachi, the Karachi Water Board, education and the Health. The Pakistan People’s Party also expanded its influences in PIA backing the Peoples’ Unity which is now the collective Bargaining Agent (CBA) in the PIA. Similarly, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) supports the Air League, another workers’ body. Some decades ago, Jamaat Islami too was very strong in the PIA and had won union elections. Notwithstanding their mutual differences, these employees’ bodies would probably come together to resist the shifting of the PIA Head Office and its hub to Islamabad. The government should have been well advised to avoid stirring the hornet’s nest. The Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party, BilawalBhutto Zardari has already indicated that he would mobilize the PIA employees to join the agitation of Pakistan Democratic Movement. This would add to the political chaos that is already tossing the country.

The shifting of the Head Office of the Airline to Islamabad seems to be part of the federal government’s strategy to streamline the national carrier if viewed within the context of the Volunteer Separation Scheme (VSS) introduced earlier in December. According to the Pakistan Airline Pilot Association (PALPA), the PIA has over 14500 employees in all categories. The government wants to reduce this strength by retrenching at least 3,500 workers. According to PALPA, the Civil Aviation Division has already dispensed with the services of some 900 employees for various reasons.

Many employees have opted for VSS. Many more will follow the suit under stress to avoid dislocation to Islamabad.The majority of the employees opting for VSS because of impending dislocation would undoubtedly be from Sindh and Balochistan. A substantial number of these employees irrespective of their ethnicity must have already settled down in Karachi with their children receiving education or doing jobs. The dislocation for such employees would be more disturbing. The easy way out of this stress would be VSS. Either decision would be a big economic blow to them. In a country where the private sector is not doing well and the job market has shrunk owing to Covid-19, this process of voluntary retirement would reduce many families to severe economic distress. This amounts toblatant negation of the concept of social welfare state or the purported Riasat e Madina.

The Sindhis and Baloch, barring a few in officers’ category, are employed in low grade jobs. Over years, they have managed to address their housing problem in Karachi. Maybe, some of them have found small businesses or part time jobs to supplement their income. They must have been living with their school or college going children. Some of them may not have completed the mandatory number of years in service to qualify for VSS. They were mostly employed in the third and fourth term of the PPP. Their transfer to Islamabad would leave many families stranded. These employees can neither shift their entire families to Islamabad nor would it be feasible for them to make both ends meet within their meager salaries in both cities – Islamabad and Karachi.

Sindh is the second largest federal unit and its capital has been hosting a number of federal departments and corporations. Karachi is quite close to Balochistan. The residents of Sindh and Balochistan working in federal departments/ corporations have been comfortably living in Karachi within easy reach of their native towns. The shifting of the large public sector enterprises/departments from Karachi is tantamount to blatant denigration of the significance of the second big province within the federation depriving its people of jobs. There are reports that over 100,000 jobs are vacant within the Federation but the federal regime is reluctant to fill these jobs.

Federations are run by consultation taking on board all the stakeholders. The federal government has so far ignored the representative government of Sindh in all important matters including PIDA; the Karachi Development Project; therelocation of PIA to Islamabad;the rightsizing and privatizing of Pakistan Steel Mills;distribution of oil and gas; recruitment to federal jobs etc. How long will this  go on, one wonders to ask.

Published in Daily Times, January 8, 2021