The death of 21 people in their cars on snow affected roads in Murree is an unspeakable tragedy. The press reports right now point towards an unprecedented rush of people leading to traffic jams accentuated by heavy snowfall. Reportedly 155,000 cars had entered Murree in the first week of 2022. A fact that the information minister of the government was quick to crow about as evidence of increasing prosperity in the country. But this ‘show of prosperity’ turned into tragedy very quickly. This time, someone no less the Prime Minister himself, described the rush of cars as evidence of people’s own carelessness, for ‘proceeding without checking [the] weather conditions’. Beyond the official framing of the disaster as either the price of prosperity or carelessness of the people, is the framing of the event as an outcome of state incompetence. Without getting into a shouting match between the voices, I would like to reflect upon what the loss of life says about deeper state-society relations in Pakistan. As a hazards geographer I think it is important that we do, if we are to avoid a repeat of the same in the future.
During my stay in Pakistan, I was travelling quite a bit for field work on a research project and personal travel. As a consequence, during long hours in the car I was listening to various radio stations to beguile time. I was particularly struck by the insufferably pedantic and preachy tone of all the disk jockeys, from the buttoned up conservative Radio Pakistan to more playful assorted FM stations. The announcers would just not quit preaching to the people on various aspects of personal morality and ethics from being nice to elders, to loving Pakistan, to offering prayers to eating less, to working hard. If only the same radio stations had informed the public about the dangers of monoxide poisoning from running car engines, it could’ve saved lives in Murree, for example. The infantilization of the audience implied—nay, asserted in the ‘sermons’ should be insulting and annoying even to a child let alone an adult. But that was overwhelmingly the tenor of the media, and it was non-stop.
Public service, road safety, public health messaging happens everywhere in the world and should. Such messaging would be focused on issues of road safety, weather, health & hygiene etc. But very little of that happened. Seemed like the ‘wise’ ones on the radio had decided that their audience were idiot, unpatriotic, bad Muslim barbarians in desperate need of spiritual and patriotic rescue by them. As if the biggest issues in Pakistan were of bad manners, lack of Godliness and laziness. The Pakistan media and not just the erstwhile Prime Minister of Pakistan illustrate the pedagogical politics of the state quite well.
Driving in Pakistan one would be hard pressed to see any road safety signs. One will however find various boards exhorting people ‘to make Pakistan beautiful’, as if everyone is set to make it ugly. One will find green signs on every light pole, where the lights don’t work, the beautiful names of God and a few other pious sounding words, reminding people, for example, that ‘Yateem’ means orphan, or ‘Hijazi’ means sakan Hijaz (who lives in Hijaz) or ‘Hashmi’ being someone of the Hashmi clan. The piety of the green signs is reinforced by assorted official roadside signs with Quranic verses, all over Pakistan.
In fashionable parts of urban Pakistan the pious roadside oeuvre is complemented most dangerously by animated LED billboards and screens on light poles. These LED screens are either promoting this or that real estate project, or brand name, but more most often extolling the virtues of Pakistani armed forces. Animated LEDs are a known traffic hazard as they distract drivers and can be a cause of major accidents. That is also why they are banned on road sides in many countries. But their very existence and converse non-existent road safety signs speak of the priorities of the state, and what it deems to be important for people to know.
The detour through the airwaves, as well as urban and highway landscape of Pakistan speaks to perhaps the root cause of the tragedy in Murree. There never was an effort to inform the public of the hazardous conditions prevailing in Murree and issuing widely accessible travel advisories. And even if there were, given the state society relations that have developed as a result of the pedagogical politics of the state, I have witnessed the development of an almost nihilistic mistrust among the public towards the state through my research in Pakistan. People rightly believe that the state doesn’t care and in fact infantilizes and abuses them, and therefore is not to be trusted. Which one of us would trust an entity that perpetually tells us that we are not good enough patriots, Muslims, humans or anything?
To avoid Murree like tragedies the state will have to reorient itself towards public safety instead of real estate, piety and martyrdom. And beyond that, it will have to allow provision of necessary resources, training and information to the civil administration to provide information, rescue and assistance to people already in trouble. There’s a reason why the civil administration was reportedly invisible in Murree in the wake of the tragedy. It does not have the equipment, training or even motivation to do anything. The sight of soldiers digging cars out of snow might be an ISPR wet dream but it’s not a solution. Civil servants need training in disaster response, equipment like bulldozers, snowploughs, information billboards, broadcasting capacity, for example to do the job.
Pakistani people like anywhere want to have faith in their state. it’s the only one they have. If the state were to start working on building that trust by prioritizing their material safety instead of their spiritual well being, which they can sort out better than any ISPR or Information Ministry mandarin, there might be the beginnings of a more positive state-society relationship. Such a relationship will be underpinned by a culture of safety and openness.