By Kaleem Omar
The events of the last couple of weeks suggest that Pakistan should perhaps be re-named "Containeristan". I say this because an estimated 10,000 containers were used by the provincial and federal governments to block roads in various parts of the country, especially Punjab, in order to prevent the 'Long March' from reaching Islamabad and staging a dharna on Constitution Avenue, also known to wags as the "Amended Constitution Avenue."
You may wonder why I've put the words 'Long March' within inverted commas. The reason is that I've always had trouble describing a procession of cars, vans, buses and trucks as a 'Long March'. By definition, a Long March means people proceeding on foot over long distances, as the communists did in China back in the 1930s. That really was a 'Long March', extending over a distance of some 6,000 miles and lasting more than three years. But people driving in air-conditioned Pajeros or other similar vehicles from Lahore to Islamabad or from Peshawar to Constitution Avenue is not exactly my idea of a 'Long March'.
One could legitimately call such a journey a 'Long Drive', but to call it a 'Long March' strains the bounds of credibility and common sense. Not for nothing is it said that common sense is anything but common in this country. There have even been occasions in the past when political activists travelling from Karachi to Islamabad by train have called their journey a 'Long March' -- a formulation which conjures up surrealistic visions of hordes of people marching up and down the corridors of the Tezgaam or the Khyber Mail.
A corollary to this sort of usage is newspaper reports stating that some provincial politician or the other has 'air-dashed' from, say, Quetta to Islamabad for urgent talks with the federal government aimed at resolving the latest political crisis -- political crises being things that are never in short supply in this country. Such 'air-dashes' suggest bizarre images of the politician in question dashing up and down the aisle of the plane as it wings its way to Islamabad.
Leaving such lexical peculiarities aside, let us take a closer look at some of the implications of this month's 'containerisation' of Pakistan. For one thing, there was the cost of the exercise. The containers used in the exercise are all owned by foreign shipping companies and can be rented for an average cost of Rs 7,500 per day for a 20-foot container and an average of Rs 15,000 per day for a 40-foot container, those being the two sizes most commonly in use throughout the world.
Assuming that the containers requisitioned by the provincial and federal governments to block the roads were a 50/50 mix of 20-footers and 40-footers, the rent payable to the shipping companies for 10,000 containers works out to Rs 11,250 per container for one day. This, in turn, works out to Rs 112.5 million per day for 10,000 containers. Assuming that the containers were requisitioned for a period of, say, five days (that is to say, for a couple of days before the 'Long March', the day of the 'Long March' itself, and for a couple of days after the 'Long March'), the total rental payable to the shipping companies comes to Rs 562.5 million, or more than half-a-billion rupees.
That's one side of the coin. The other side of the coin -- and there is always another side -- has to do with the question of whether the shipping companies that own the containers can reasonably expect to be paid the rental charges owed to them by the provincial and federal governments?
The shipping companies couldn't stop the government agencies from requisitioning the containers, for the simple reason that the law enforcement agencies have the coercive power of the state on their side. But this certainly should not mean that the agencies can requisition the containers for free. International law requires the agencies to pay the rent that is due on the containers, as in the case of any other party renting containers.
So are the shipping companies likely to get the rent for their containers? If past experience is anything to go by, the answer to this question is probably no. And even if they do get paid, it may be years before they see the colour of their money -- governmental red-tape in such matters being what it is.
If they don't get paid, or if there is an inordinate delay in their getting paid, the likelihood is that foreign shipping companies will refuse to bring their vessels to Pakistan. Where would that leave us given the fact that over 90 per cent of Pakistan's import and export cargo is carried by foreign shipping lines?
We can hardly switch to using vessels belonging to the state-owned Pakistan National Shipping Corporation. For one thing, PNSC only has 14 ships, and even some of those are in such a pathetic condition that it's a wonder that they even manage to stay afloat. For another, PNSC seems to be so busy putting out fires in its head office building and repairing the damage caused by the fires that it hardly has any time to run its shipping operation.
But the problems resulting from using containers to block the roads doesn't end here by any means. For one thing, it has been reported that most of the containers were full of goods meant for the export market or perishable produce meant for the domestic market. Most of the perishable produce has probably gone bad by now, while the ships that were meant to carry the containers full of export goods have got fed up of waiting for the containers to arrive at Karachi Port and have sailed away by now.
What is going to be the reaction of the foreign buyers of the export goods to this disgraceful state of affairs? One can just imagine a foreign buyer saying, "Where's the container carrying the goods I bought?" and being told by a sheepish shipping agent that the container in question had been requisitioned by the provincial and federal governments in Pakistan to block a road in Kamoke, say, or in Sohawa. The buyer's response to this piece of intelligence is likely to be unprintable, to say nothing of the fact that it's not likely to earn Pakistan much goodwill in export markets.
And who is going to compensate the owners of the export goods and perishable produce? Or will they, too, have to twiddle their thumbs for years waiting for their money?
To compound the problem, there is no provision in the government's budget for paying compensation to the owners of the goods or to the people whose trucks were requisitioned to transport the container to the barricade points. So even if, by some miracle, the government agrees to compensate them, where's the money going to come from?
Given all the unsavoury ramifications of this whole imbroglio, we can only console ourselves with the thought that every cloud has a silver lining. In this particular case, the silver lining has to do with the fact that the 'Long March' didn't need to go all the way to Islamabad. By the time it got to Gujranwala, word came down from Islamabad that the federal government had caved in and restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and all the other so-called "non-functional" judges to their offices.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani's early-morning TV announcement to this effect was greeted by scenes of jubilation across the country.