With 90,000 employees, Pakistan Railways is one of the largest employers in the country and has been so almost since its very inception 150 years ago. So when it fails to pay its pensioners for several months on end, it has a big impact across virtually every district in Pakistan. Yet, even as the crisis at the railways has come front and centre on the national agenda, there is depressingly little talk of sustainable and lasting solutions.
One would have hoped that a man dying outside a bank branch while waiting for his pension would have shocked the ministry and the company’s management out of their complacency. It appears, however, that nearly everybody who has a say in the matter is still looking to make ad hoc decisions.
President Asif Ali Zardari has taken action against branch managers at the National Bank of Pakistan, which was responsible for disbursing the pensions. The chief justice of Pakistan has taken a somewhat more interesting approach of threatening the railways’ management’s salaries if they fail to pay pensions to the company’s retirees. The apex court has also, thankfully, accepted the principle that the railways should be run like a commercial entity, meaning it should be required to turn a profit. It is likely that the government will release some amount of money to the railways as a means to ensure that the pensioners finally get paid.
Yet this still leaves the question unanswered as to why — if the railways are so desperate for cash — they refuse to present a credible plan to restructure the company and move it towards profitability. This very reasonable request has been made by the finance ministry, which says that it will then release funds that will eventually allow Pakistan Railways to get back on its feet. The finance ministry is acting like the grown-up in this situation. It is time the railways management did what is best for their institution and the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2011.