Murree Debacle

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Huzaima Bukhari

We are in the habit of postmortem operations of crises by constituting committees to look into matters and compiling reports that serve no useful purpose

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other opportunity”? John F Kennedy
History repeats itself for those who fail to learn any lessons from it. Those who bring about revolutions in the true sense of the word are the ones who closely follow the trails of mankind over the past centuries and are fully cognizant of the way events would occur and when and how, and what can be the possible solutions. One does not have to be an astrologist to predict what could ensue after certain proceedings. Any sane person can easily foresee how things would fall into place and what would be the outcome of some actions. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, despite recurrent critical episodes, from floods to earthquakes to landslides, we continue to make the same mistakes in utter ignorance or rather utter incompetence.
The year 2022 commenced with not only the possible spread of Omicron or the fourth wave of Covid-19 for the world but also caused irreparable grief to many households in Pakistan when on January 7, according to official media, 23 persons lost their lives when stranded in their vehicles during a snowstorm in Murree. However, as per social media, the death toll could be around 70 with people succumbing to death on account of inhaling carbon monoxide inside their cars or due to hypothermia, because of the freezing cold. The Interior Minister has claimed that while Murree had a capacity of around 5,000 vehicles, on that fateful day, more than 100,000 motor cars thronged the roads of this mountain resort to enjoy snowfall that overturned into an unprecedented blizzard causing immense damage and deaths.
Ironically, the Government of Pakistan boasts of a strong disaster management foundation built around the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMA). There is also mention of well-established national development and disaster risk reduction frameworks that include the Pakistan Vision 2025, the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) 2012-2022, and the National Food Protection Plan (IV) 2015-25. It is claimed that United Nations and humanitarians work closely with NDMA, PDMA, Line Ministries, and the National Disaster Risk Management Fund (NDRMF) in support of these initiatives. With such a pompous structure at both federal and provincial levels, why was nothing done at this crucial juncture when the public was in dire straits? Why are taxpayers forced to nurture these authorities if they are supposed to remain unresponsive in a given situation? Why was the army called in to sort out this emergency in the presence of civil authorities? One of the affected families has spoken highly about the role of the army in helping the people stranded in the section between Jhikagali and Kuldana.
A close analysis of the Murree incident would reveal failure on the part of the governments, irresponsibility on the part of the people, and, of course, the inhuman attitude of the local population that, rather than aiding the stranded people, took to financial exploitation and minting money from the occurrence of a human and natural disaster. Such events display the character of a nation. Where the governments and the military should have immediately opened the doors of their affluent rest houses to shelter these unfortunate people, those running private hotels could have been empathetic and allowed refuge to them by giving special discounts if not free accommodation. Alas, this was not so. While the government officials stood frozen themselves, the general public viewed this crisis as a glorious opportunity to burglarize the victims of whatever little money they had. Consequently, those who were unable to find shelter were forced to stay in their vehicles because of which there were casualties.

Agreed that this was a freak storm–perhaps, the weather forecast was unclear and the governments were taken unaware–but how can one absolve the local authority from the responsibility of allowing more than the limited number of tourists into the town? The moment a fixed number of vehicles were registered entry, the remaining should have been turned back regardless of their protests. Entrances to Murree could have been blocked leaving the road open to traffic to other towns. Many possibilities could have been considered when such huge traffic was observed slugging towards the mountains. On normal days, there are so many check posts where uniformed personnel is stationed to cross-examine travellers. But why weren’t any measures taken to stem the inflow of hundreds of thousands of tourists?
Lives are more precious than a few moments of entertainment. Knowing this well and the governments’ scanty facilities for holidaymakers, people should abstain from taking their families to destinations where the chances of survival in a situation of crisis, are quite bleak. Making the best of opportunities is one thing but taking suicidal risks is not at all advised. With an extraordinary wealth in possession of the masses, which the government has, regrettably, remained unsuccessful in regulating, the public, in order to show off its new-found riches, behaves unwisely in providing enjoyment to its loved ones by resorting to whatever is in vogue only to realise the damaging effects of such adventures later.
Out of the many videos posted on social media, one stands out where so-called sagacious parents are seen bending to the wishes of their foolish children in continuing to their doom instead of turning around. This shows the way parents today are raising the next generation towards disobedience and obstinacy.
A lot can be learned from these odious few hours of extreme peril to avoid similar situations in the future. We are in the habit of postmortem operations of crises by constituting committees to look into matters and compiling reports that serve no useful purpose because eventually, one crisis gives way to another critical episode and the practice goes on leaving in its wake dead bodies. Our nation is no longer tuned to listening to sane voices, learning lessons from the past, or mending its ways. The level of incompetence, dishonesty and unethical stance have reached their limits and unless immediate steps are not taken to resolve these matters, doomsday is not far off.

The writer is lawyer, author, Adjunct Faculty (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow (Pakistan Institute of Development Economics).