The story of PIA’s wholesale fake licenses isn’t just about poor regulation and mismanagement. Nor a display of one-off oversight. It strikes at the heart of modern values that at least some Pakistanis aspire to.
Make no mistake. Pakistan has been on a self-destructive path to pre-modernity on its own. There have been many a growing signs of regression over the last few years. Periodic episodes of unbridled daylight robbery, the now checked reign of terror, serious electricity shortages, are just some examples. But these may be ignored as superficial signs, just as wearing jeans (or skirt) is mistakenly considered a sign of modernity; or being fluent in English, sporting latest tech gadgets, or frequent foreign travels is conflated with being modern.
Let also for the moment ignore all those WhatsApp scientists who advocate quackery in the 21st century for various types of illnesses including Covid-19. And let’s also ignore (with a heavy heart) those clerics who teach madrassa pupils that the earth does not orbit around the sun. These are also clear and present signs of regressing to pre-modern era but not as much as Pakistan’s failure to use history to make history and the growing break down of trust.
A defining feature of modernity, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens notes, is the production of systematic knowledge about individual and collective lives which becomes integral to the production of abstract systems and institutions – a cycle which eventually rolls social life away from the fixities of tradition. In other words, using history to make history.
Modernity is separated from pre-modern era by the fact that nearly every aspect of human life is studied with a scientific approach; countless papers are written; debates and conferences are held; laws, policies and procedures made - all of which in turn shape or alter the behaviour of modern human beings, leading to further production of knowledge about those changes in behaviour which creates the ever continuing cycle of systematic reflexivity. Anyone who has followed Pakistan’s economy, and the society at large knows well the country’s dismal affairs as far as this aspect of modernity is concerned. (See also BR Research’s ‘Everybody knows’, Jan 7, 2019 and ‘Living with others’ Jan 10 2019)
Another defining feature of modernity is trust in abstract systems and institutions as against trust in individuals. Because social and economic activity is no longer tied to time and space (say buying milk every morning from reliable neighbourhood store whose owner is also the second cousin of your grandma’s nephew), modernity is inseparable from trust in abstract systems and institutions.
Laws, rules, procedures, third party private sector evaluations, and so forth – all these exist to be able to gain trust and lessen our concerns over our awareness of various circumstances of risk, to the degree that most modern humans sometimes even have no clue of the underlying risks as the go about in their day to day lives.
No one walking into a hot new mall in Pakistan worries whether or not the building will collapse. Only that in Pakistan, buildings have been collapsing. Even sections of newly constructed bridges have collapsed in not so recent past. Granted that buildings are not falling apart as frequently as easily preventable Pakistan Railways accidents. Or perhaps as frequent as deaths/critical hospitalisation from unhygienic restaurant food. But they are collapsing. Because someone in the system chose to abuse the trust placed on that person.
There is a reason why there was shock and awe around the world when the story of PIA’s fake pilot licenses emerged just weeks after the airline’s horrible crash in Karachi. All over the world, airline safety is considered the most sacred; it is why even jokingly talking about the B-word on airport or airplane gets people in trouble with the law.
Over the years, air travel has been made the safest means of transport; statistically speaking airline accidents are incredibly low probability events when compared to all other means of transport. But because these events have both shocking and disastrous consequences, and because passengers cannot get out of a plane mid-flight, extreme care and precaution is still taken at every step of the way.
Flight attendants will bore people (often in two languages) with safety instructions every single time; they will ensure that each window shutter is open at every single landing and take-off. Every little procedure matters! Many of which are behind the scenes that airline travellers don’t get to see. But there is an implicit level of trust in the system that extreme care has been taken by real and legal persons not personally known to these travellers.
But when the system cannot be trusted for what is considered to be the most important affair (aviation safety), there is little reason to trust any other abstract system and institution in the country. And that is why PIA’s fake license saga strikes at the heart of modernity in Pakistan. If trust is the coin of the realm, Pakistan has just lost its currency.