Our national heart bleeds over the Murree tragedy. Death put its icy hands on the lovers of snow-fall — men, women and children who were stranded in their vehicles until their bodies froze. Every tragedy brings in its wake a grim reminder that we are a fractured nation. Unprofessionalism, institutional incompetence, poor infrastructure, lack of crises management, and a lack of inter-institutional co-ordination made an avoidable catastrophe the unavoidable.
The loss of 23 lives awoke the government from its deep slumber once stories of the ordeal faced by those trapped in their vehicles were uploaded to social media. Thus, it was the various videos, highlighting helplessness, shortage of food, fuel and much-needed comforting things like blankets, going viral that captured the national attention. It was then that rescue operations and subsequently the pouring in of the Pakistan Army, Rangers, civil administration, and NGOs began.
As per the preliminary report submitted to Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, the Meteorological Department (Met) did not do its job of warning of heavy snowfall and there were subsequent failures in terms of streamlining precautionary measures by the local administration. The roads have not been repaired in over two decades. Fallen trees obstruct roadways. There is an absence of snow moving machines, and unavailability of electricity in the area. These are some of the issues that shaped the tragedy. Also, power outages prevailing in various hotels in the tourist resort left many people with no option but to sit in their vehicles. A terrible traffic jam and load-shedding hampered the rescue operation. Apparently, ill-fated tourists succumbed to death from inhaling carbon monoxide gas.
Humanity wept on the roads of Murree under the heavy weight of greed.
The pattern cultivated over the years has been that after every tragedy, successive governments wail their chests over the loss of human lives, consequently wake-up to much-needed reforms and instantly announce monetary package for the bereaved families. As it happened on the heels of the Murree tragedy, the Punjab CM Sardar Usman Bozdar announced to make Murree a district and the additional placement of a deputy commissioner (DC) and district police officer (DPO). The CM has also made plans of making long due infrastructure improvement, like repairing roads and constructing link roads.
However, the tragedy in Murree has left many questions unanswered. Some questions that arise are: Why was there no coordination between the provincial government and local administrative structures after the Met Office warned of heavy snowfall? Why were as many as 130,000 vehicles allowed through when there was capacity for only around 35,000? Under harsh weather conditions, the prevailing knowledge applied all over the world is to close motor ways and warn tourists and travelers of imminent danger at toll check posts.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry was proud of the entry of such a huge number of vehicles and the unprecedented pouring in of tourists to the tour resort. Shortly after, heart-breaking stories of those trapped in the snow evaporated the euphoria. None paid attention to the looming danger in the face of the frosty weather that resulted in more vehicles beyond the area’s capacity. Reportedly, Murree had received similar downpours of snowfall in the past, but the onslaught of vehicles much beyond capacity shaped the tragedy. Humanity wept on the roads of Murree under the heavy weight of greed.
While those trapped in frosty weather were desperate to receive help, the locals became stony hearted, subsequently demanding thousands of rupees for pushing vehicles that came to halt. Normally, three to four hundred rupees are said to have been taken by the helpers rendering such a service. The hotels and restaurants doubled their charges for food served and rooms rented. Fifteen hotels have been sealed in Murree so far for overcharging tourists. Thus, it has reaffirmed that those at the helm of businesses at tourist spots put their petty profits before human welfare in such dire circumstances. We have become people ready to mint money, especially fleecing those touring and travelling. Besides, the sale of sub-standard items and stale food is reported in national newspapers time and again. But all such complaints usually fall on deaf ears.
Were any of the mainstream oppositional political parties in power, the outcome in Murree would have been the same.
During vacations, when people throng at touring sites with their families, they experience monkey business at the hands of those doing business there. Under such circumstances, only people with deep pockets have the luxury of touring and travelling. The vast majority only opt to travel for necessary, practical-life engagements. Following the profiteering of businessmen at the sites in question, people with low income even can’t imagine visiting such natural scenes like Murree and other such tourist areas.
I have experienced doubling of charges at stopover hotels and restaurants during my journeys to and from Larkana and Karachi. Recently, I travelled with my son who had wished to eat chicken for lunch. Surprisingly, a plate of chicken quorma was being sold at Rs 400 – a price doubled at stopover hotels along the national highways. The ugly practice of fleecing the public is common all over the country as the relevant authorities entrusted with ensuring fair prices are allegedly in collusion with cruel profiteers. Hence, the crackdown against hotels involved in unscrupulous business should go beyond Murree to hotels operating along the motorways and national highways and so on, all over the country. Principally, tourist havens should not be safe sanctuaries for petty profiteers. We also see that the corruption mafia continues to extract money from buyers and travelers during Eid festivities. A surge in supply is synonymous with a price hike in Pakistan and it goes on unabated. Things were not different during previous Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) or Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) governments.
It is disappointing to note the petty politics that we came across, with opposition politicians directing their guns against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government over its failure to handle the crises in Murree. Using human tragedy as an opportunity for political point-scoring is an undemocratic exercise. The institutional paralysis that we witnessed in Murree can never be thrown only at the door of the incumbent government. Successive governments are also naked in this bath called institutional incompetence. It is the result of decades-long bad governance and imprudent policies pursued by mainstream political parties during their stints in power. We have reached this institutional dysfunction due to historical hypocrisy, lip service, nepotism, cronyism, and patronage to cruel capitalists’ ugly scheme of making money. This has pervaded the power corridors under regimes of other political parties, too. Nosediving state institutions like Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Pakistan Steels Mills should remind the opposition of their failure to bring the enterprises back on track during their respective governments. Were any of the mainstream oppositional political parties in power, the outcome in Murree would have been the same.
It is high time for national political parties to put their heads together to cultivate a culture of taking responsibility and owning their policies and pitfalls. After having come under fire for institutional incompetence, the government has constituted a four-member committee to ascertain the factors behind the unfortunate incident and shine light on the faces whose unprofessional handling of the matter aggravated the situation. Identifying responsibility and punishing those responsible is imperative if such occurrences are to be avoided in the future.
Unfortunately, we are known for having a poor record of taking people to task for their supposed sleepiness during crises, when they are duty bound to be wakeful in every context. The problem is that the top slots of countless institutions are occupied by influential individuals. When it comes to holding those found guilty accountable, the established political order leaves no stone unturned to save their skin. As a result, vague findings are the ultimate outcome of various enquires.