A Guest Post by Majyd Aziz
PAKISTAN is fortunate to have a formidable number of experienced, visionary, and dedicated entrepreneurs who have carved out a name for themselves in trade, in industry, in social activities, and at global forums. Inspite of monumental odds and roadblocks, whether in the domestic environment or in international markets, Pakistani businessmen and industrialists have persevered and succeeded. Over the years, they also formed Chambers, Associations, Forums, and Groups to protect, promote, and project their views, their endeavors, and their organizations.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King, Jr.
The trade and industry community has also boldly taken stands whenever the need arose. In 1990, under the aegis of SITE Association of Industry and APTMA, a forum SICORLO was formed to protest the deteriorating law and order situation. At that time, SICORLO issued advertisement on a daily basis making fervent appeals for the restoration of law and order. Millions of rupees were spent, and this campaign proved so effective that the government had to step in, literally pleading that this “sob-story” was giving a notorious reputation to the country and that it could turn out to be counter-productive in the long run. Things did improve for a short time thereafter and then the country was back to square one mainly due to juvenile politicians.
In 1986, under the dynamic leadership of a brave business leader, the late Ejaz Shaffi, the SITE Association of Industry led the campaign against the enforcement of a draconian system in Excise Duty that the mandarins in the erstwhile Central Board of Revenue had tried to introduce by camouflaging it as “simplification procedures”. This was a hectic nine-day protest, where five to six hundred industrialists would gather daily at SITE, keeping their factories shut, and listening to the motivational oratory of Ejaz Shaffi and other leaders. After nine days, Premier Junejo had to fly to Karachi, and at a meeting with the industrialists at the Sindh Governor House, declared that this draconian exercise planned by the egoistic CBR officers would be ended immediately. All this happened during the martial law tenure of General Zia.
The above events are narrated because I was fully involved in both. These brought me into limelight and established by bona fides as a representative of trade and industry.
In recent times, businessmen have had their protests but these have been few and ineffective. Once even FPCCI went on strike during the tenure of Benazir Bhutto but she got the better of it. Recently, a self-styled leader of small traders called a strike against extortion and law and order. Initially, the Karachi Chamber President agreed to support it but Interior Minister Rehman Malik and the Sindh Governor prevailed upon the KCCI leadership to cool down. Resultantly, the strike fizzled out and the small traders’ leader got, what Andy Warhol once said, his fifteen minutes of fame. He was a hot item for a couple of days on the media but then the party was over.
The reason I am presenting these examples is that today, when Pakistan needs to sort out its various problems, the role of the business community is zilch because it is at a crossroads. It has this feeling that policies and events in this country are working against businessmen and their very survivability is at stake. The businessmen have this feeling that they have lost whatever ground they had achieved in the last some years. A situation has developed where it seems that the businessmen are damned if they do anything and damned even if they do not do anything.
The leaders of the business community generally tend to play it safe when it comes to dealing with the ruling party, even in these days of democracy and freedom of expression. The present economic scenario and the recessionary trends in the country along with cost increases, utilities shortages and high rates, coupled with low demand, volatile business conditions, uncertainty of the rupee-dollar parity, and the deteriorating law and order situation, not to mention the upsurge in strike calls, have brought businessmen into a frenzy. Their long-term planning has gone to the dogs while in the short run the capital crunch is proving disastrous. The stock exchange is going down like a roller coaster and the media is showing the mess in vivid colors. It seems that in Islamabad the economy is on the lower strata of the government’s agenda, and the Finance Minister is spending more time in the corridors of IMF and World Bank rather than interacting with the businessmen. In his absence, the FBR fudges figures and the Finance Ministry gets pie in the face. All budgetary calculations are based on what loans and aid Pakistan will or can receive rather than endeavoring to expand the tax base at home.
Pakistan faces on-going violence in Karachi, resulting from political grievances which have been enormously magnified by extremism and lawlessness. It is a shame that the law-enforcers are so impotent that they are not able to control the city. There have been reports that they tend to become silent spectators rather than assiduously performing their obligations. Moreover, if there were no Edhi, Aman, or Chhippa ambulances, how would the injured and dead be transported to the hospitals or the morgue? And the less said about KESC, the better.
The political impasse has been putting a heavy toll not only on Karachi’s economic picture, but also on the nation’s economic progress. At the same time, the effect on foreign investment in Karachi is also being felt. The head of a multi-national stated bluntly that “foreign businessmen are now becoming reluctant to invest under the prevailing circumstances and the only option left for them is to check out other countries.” Another declared in clear terms that the US investors have lost interest in funding projects due to civil strife in Karachi. His colleague added “although foreign investment is not a panacea of all ills, yet the influx of foreign investment in power generation, infra-structure development, and other sectors could help solve crucial issues.” A Japanese representative of a trading company stated that the Karachi problem has discouraged Japanese investors from coming here and that there “is a general feeling among the foreign investors that Karachi is no longer safe to invest.” Another Japanese moaned the circular debt when requested to invest in an upcoming coal-based power project. Ominous words that further erode the image of this city.
The beef against the business leadership is that matters are taken in stride and, if need arises, a press release is issued condemning this or that. That’s it. There is apathy even when rates of utilities are increased multifold. There are murmurs but no conviction in statements or actions. Extortion by vested interests is a daily occurrence but there is acquiescence within the business leadership. Market leaders collect funds on a shop-basis and then distribute them to various extortionists and political elements. Quite easily done. No hassles.
There is no better time than now for the business leadership to catch the bull by its horns. There have been no overtures made to the political parties or to the government or even to the armed forces and judiciary. There has not been a unified stance by businessmen to play a prominent and purposeful role to handle the crisis. The silence is truly deafening. Silence is not golden in this case. The FPCCI President with the support of business leaders like Tariq Sayeed, Siraj Teli, S M Muneer, Aqil Karim Dhedhi, and Asad Umar must initiate the dialog and must energize everyone towards the resolution of the crisis. Hope is there if businessmen mediate and if businessmen put some sense in the ranks of politicians. The FPCCI President is also a Senator and thus is better placed to carry on the task.
So, what it boils down to is that circumstances could look favorable for a solution to the political and economic imbroglio that Karachi is facing. The process should begin. All it needs is a pragmatic, resolute, and sincere push from the businessmen. From Asif Ali Zardari, Altaf Hussein, and the twenty million residents who want their City to become once again a peaceful, secure, and bustling city, this is the message. Peace and prosperity soon!
"There are a million ways to lose a work day, but not even a single way to get one back."
Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister
Majyd Aziz is a Karachi based Entrepreneur and a senior leader of the business community. He is a former Chairman of SITE Association of Industry, former President of Karachi Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and has held posts on the board various public organizations and companies.