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The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf

December 11, 2003

It's work as usual at PIA!

The phone on the desk rings constantly, demanding Parwez Ahmed Khan's (above) attention. His mobile phone buzzes incessantly.

The sudden, heightened activity is a welcome change from the apathy that has shrouded the PIA office in the heart of Mumbai's business district for nearly two years now. Both India and Pakistan closed their air space to each other on January 1, 2002. This not only meant that the two countries would not operate flights into each other's territory; it also meant that Indian and Pakistani flights that once used air corridors in each other's space had to now plot new routes.

Since then, Khan, who is the manager of the Indian branch of Pakistan International Airlines, has been twiddling his thumbs. "I had no job for two years. I was in Mumbai doing nothing. The only thing I have done in the last two years is play games on the computer," he says.

On December 2, India and Pakistan agreed to resume simultaneous air links and overflights on a reciprocal basis. This decision comes to effect on January 1, 2004. Khan, whose face is wreathed in a grin of satisfaction, says, "Now, everyone wants to know when we are re-starting our India operations. I have told them it will most probably happen on January 1 or in the first week of January. This is because there are many logistics that need to fall into place first."

India is a highly lucrative destination for PIA. Until it stopped operations here, the average seat occupancy in flights to this sector was about 80 per cent. The business generated from the Indian sector was about Rs 20 crores (Rs 200 million) annually. Before the ban, PIA used to operate 12 flights to India every week. It will now resume operations with the same number of flights.

But the PIA office on the fourth floor at Mittal Court, Nariman Point, still wears a deserted look. At the moment, it is only staffed by Khan and two Indian accountants. Boxes -- some filled with paper and some empty -- are stacked haphazardly all over the place. The furniture and the computers require a good dusting while the office itself urgently needs the ministrations of a housekeeping staff.

"We are now planning to make new furniture and install new computers by last week of December to give our office a fresh look. We also plan to hire new staff by January once we start operating full-fledgedly in India," says Khan.

PIA had 19 Indian employees in Mumbai and 17 Indian employees in New Delhi. When it shut down its operations in India two years ago, almost all of them lost their jobs. The employees sued PIA saying they were fired in an illegal manner; the matter is still pending before the high courts in both Delhi and Mumbai.

"I don't know what their fate will be as far as rehiring them is concerned," says Khan of his former staff. "I have to discuss all these things with my lawyer as the cases are in court."

PIA used to operate five flights in a week from Mumbai to Karachi, three flights from Delhi to Karachi and four flights from Delhi to Lahore before they shut down the operations. Khan was given the responsibility of winding up PIA's operation in India. At the moment, he is PIA's only Pakistani employee in India.

"Frankly speaking," Khan says, "if I had to face this situation in any other country, I would have taken leave or resigned from my job. It was only because I was in India that I preferred to stay on even though I did not have any work to do. I am very happy that the work has now begun in full swing again."

Asked if he had to face problems or difficult situations in view of the fact that relations between the two countries have been anything but smooth, he said, "Look at me. Do I look like a Pakistani? Nobody will be able to distinguish between an Indian and Pakistani if they stand together. Besides, I have very good Indian friends in Mumbai. They never made me feel I was an outsider."

Professionally, though, it's been another story. "Professionally," Khan says, "the last two years were the worst years for me. There were many times when I asked myself whether I was destroying myself professionally. But, at the end of the day, I was very hopeful that the flights between the two countries would resume."

He recalls, "My wife boarded PIA's last flight from India on December 31, 2001. I was to join her in Karachi soon. In fact, I sold all my crockery and most of the furniture at my home in Cuffe Parade. As a result, I had stop the regular ghazal party I used to host for my Indian friends at home. Every now and then, I would feel that they would recall me to Pakistan but it never happened. I think it was destined that I would be based here."

What does he plan to do on January 1 when PIA's first flight since the ban lands in Mumbai? "Obviously, I will be there at the airport to receive the passengers of PIA's first flight from Pakistan. But first, we have to arrange the availability of PIA aircrafts for the India route by January 1."

Khan will end his stint in India on October 2004, when he retires from PIA. He says, with a touch of nostalgia, "I will return to Pakistan with all the wonderful memories of India that I have gathered since I landed here for the first time in 1999. The people, the love and affection I have received here have touched me deeply."

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
Image: Rahil Shaikh

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