Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Pakistani flying carpet

POSTCARD USA: The Pakistani flying carpet — Khalid Hasan
Daily Times, March 16, 2008

The poorer a country is, the more scant the regard those who preside over its affairs seem to have for public funds. The taxpayer in whose name all is done is nothing more than a depersonalised entity, a cliché, an irrelevance, a cipher. Each penny spent by those holding positions of governance out of the state exchequer should be a penny spent in the public interest. Sadly, it is not so.

Over the years, our elected and unelected governments have become increasingly profligate, their leaders spending public money as if there was no tomorrow. There is no questioning of what they do. Legislatures, what there has been of them, have been either powerless or disinterested. And on the rare occasions when they have asked questions as to the need or justification of government expenditure, they have been ignored. In one case, not long ago, a certain quasi-public establishment simply refused to appear before a committee of the legislature when summoned to answer a few questions concerning the financial propriety of some of its activities.

In the early years of Pakistan, public funds were spent with the utmost meticulousness. The first prime minister of Pakistan, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, who donated his personal residence in New Delhi to serve as the high commissioner’s residence and who after his assassination was found to have left not more than a couple of hundred rupees in the bank, was refused the slight increase he had once sought in his sumptuary allowance. I think it was Mumtaz Hasan, joint secretary at the finance ministry, who had turned down the prime minister.

Can this be imagined today? From my own experience I recall that when Aziz Ahmed visited Canada in 1976 to negotiate important business with the Canadian government, the embassy got him a double room in one of the city hotels. He was furious at this waste of public money and insisted on getting a single room. “I just need enough space to say my morning prayers and the bit of yoga I do,” he said. A single room was finally found. I recall the assistant manager saying to me, “Was there something about the double room that His Excellency the foreign minister did not approve of?” “No, all His Excellency wants is a single room without frills,” I told him. I compare that with the Dorchester Hotel, London’s Sultan of Brunei suite that the president stayed in last month, which cost 6,500 pounds (not 17,000 pounds as reported) a night.

Last week, I wrote about the travels of our presidents and prime ministers, which triggered a few responses, one of them from a journalist who has travelled with many of our heads of state. He writes, “Yours was a timely warning to the incoming government before its members set their sights on distant lands, mostly in the West. But I fear that they will prove as shameless as their predecessors were. Over the years, we have seen things deteriorate, not improve. One thinks of Shaukat Aziz’s disastrous trip to New York with over 45 hangers on to attend a UN meeting in a room with a capacity to seat a total of 40 people. Only two of his party were allowed in. Then President Musharraf created a record by remaining abroad for a full 19 days, with nearly half the period devoted to the promotion of his book. May I add that most of the “Mansura-cleared journalists” with Gen Zia-ul Haq ended up by running up high hotel bills for watching hard porn movies. Once in Toronto, the highest bill was logged by a long-bearded gentleman from Peshawar. Most of these Zia favourites were often to be seen in New York’s notorious 42nd Street.

ZAB did start the tradition of large media delegations, but his direction was less towards the West and more towards Asia and Africa. Besides, ZAB always somehow found the time to read all the reports being filed about his ongoing visit. Once in Beijing, he asked an agency reporter at a Pakistan embassy reception why he was long on one important point and short on an equally important one. The reporter replied that by the time he had reached the second point, the newspapers in Pakistan had gone to bed. He promised to file the uncovered part the next day. ZAB had similar inquiries from other reporters on his trips. He made those he took with him work, whether they were journalists or ministers.”

Capt Javed Muzaffar, a retired PIA captain who lives in Houston wrote, “Once I had Begum Shafiqa Zia travelling on a routine DC-10 commercial flight from Islamabad to London. I was the operating captain. She was going for medical treatment. The traffic staff informed me that she was carrying 11 enormous suitcases (no extra baggage charges had been paid). Before take-off, I saw her sprawled on two first class seats. Gen Zia had come to see her off and he waved to me from the tarmac. Another time, I had to ferry back a VVIP configured DC-10 from Islamabad to Karachi after Gen Zia and his entourage had deplaned. I was astounded when I boarded the aircraft, wondering if it was the same DC-10 I knew so well. There were leather seats, plush carpets, a conference room, new curtains, a large curtained-off bedroom area, special cutlery and crockery and what have you. The leftover food my skeleton crew and I were served was out of this world. I just could not help thinking about the enormous cost of all that to our poor nation.

“It seems that the general public does not know that whenever a PIA aircraft is requisitioned for VVIP travel, it is luxuriously “refurbished”, only to be reconfigured later for the plebians who pay to fly. There are already 15 aircraft, including helicopters, in the Pakistani VVIP fleet. There is a Boeing 707, an almost new luxuriously fitted Boeing 737, a Falcon executive jet, a Cessna Citation and an Airbus 310 gifted by Qatar. On top of that, three new Learjets have been purchased recently at a cost of $60 million. I would ask readers to think about the astronomical cost of hangaring, maintaining, certifying, fuelling, crewing and catering involved here. Take India. Once I was parked in an Airbus 300 at Bombay Airport when I saw an Indian Airline Airbus taxiing in. It was a normal passenger flight. The door opened and out walked Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. One man took her briefcase, another held an umbrella over her head and she got into a beat-up white Ambassador and drove away.”

Perhaps therein lies the difference between the two neighbours.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is

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