Dawn News

Wise words on a day of shame

THEIR more fortunate compatriots often talk disparagingly of the Pakistani poor but the wisdom and stoicism of many of these deprived souls leaves one dumbfounded.

As the full horror of the Baldia Town inferno began to unfold, the pain of the victims’ families seemed to leap out of the television screens and embed itself into many, many hearts across Pakistan and wherever else the tragedy was being witnessed.

It was difficult to imagine the grief of the man who told a reporter he’d lost four daughters, a son and a sister trapped in the garment factory. The area’s deputy commissioner described the burning building as a “cage” with no escape routes.

It was impossible to comprehend what the woman was going through who said she’d been alerted by a frantic phone call from a trapped woman to the danger to her two sons in the burning building (all three perished).

She said this was around six in the evening. She rushed to the factory. And saw smoke billowing out of the windows and flames rising to all the floors. It was at least two hours before the first fire engines arrived, she said.

“Till then there were largely people from the nearby localities, volunteers from the local MQM unit, Pakhtuns, Hazarawal, some others, mostly those whose loved ones were trapped inside. They were scurrying to buy coils of rope to help those at the windows that could be opened.”

“All the efforts in the crucial first couple of hours were on a self-help basis. But, for my two sons and many others like them, it wasn’t enough … it’s been nearly 24 hours and I have been to all the hospitals and not found them. Nobody is able to tell me anything,” the woman added.

“Do you have any demand for the government?” asked the TV reporter.

“Yes, for God’s sake create a system [for such emergencies] so that Pakistan doesn’t become helpless like me, a widow who has lost two sons and has no one to fall back on except Allah,” she responded, her voice for the first time quivering with the weight of her grief.

That she was so stoic and able to see so clearly what the real issue was, and then articulate it with such dignity despite her own bereavement, left me speechless. Although none of us will ever fathom her loss, I am sure I must have been one among millions who couldn’t hold back the tears.

It would have been fitting if all those in government, notably the PPP and MQM, would have gone public with an acknowledgment of failure and offered an apology before devoting themselves to a demonstrable effort to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.

However, even in the midst of this grave national tragedy it was soon clear we would do as we always do. Accept little or no responsibility and pass the buck. In short, the reaction of the leadership was predictably gutless. This isn’t how we assert ownership over a city and its people.

Half a dozen inquiries have been ordered including one by the minister of industries himself.

In a rare and only positive move, the industries minister has resigned. One hopes this facilitates an impartial inquiry into the tragedy where his own department will also be under scrutiny.

The resignation is symbolic for now. It’ll prove meaningful only if the inquiry is robust. Particularly in a country where nobody has been held to account for even disasters such as the Ojheri camp explosion or the security breach which enabled Osama bin Laden to live here and then be killed by US forces.

The irony is one could have as easily been talking of the fire in the Lahore factory and those at the helm there. In each incident, it would have been much better for the VIPs to monitor events from afar. Their large retinues only hamper the emergency effort.

This tragedy is crying out for unanimity such as the one witnessed in the passage of the 18th to the 20th amendments so that we never have to bear such a huge loss again. Legislation is needed as is a system that kicks in when such emergencies occur.

Our industrial elite have enough international exposure. They aren’t ignorant. Till parliament legislates and systems are created, can one hope they’ll voluntarily introduce health and safety measures in their units so that at least the contract workers’ right to life is protected?

It’s a vain hope as we all know the tragedy will be forgotten as soon as the images recede from the TV screens and the next outlandish political controversy or, even worse, the next terrorist attack or sectarian murder dominates the news agenda.

We’ll cope with this latest ache as we have done with all other aches: through self-induced amnesia. What’s certain then, as we speak? Given the voices of the bereaved we have heard, we can be sure that poverty cuts across all ethnicities and Karachi cradles all of them in its lap.

The government has announced compensation for the victims’ families, quite a few of whom lost more than one member and, in many cases, their sole breadwinner. Tainted tycoon Malik Riaz has more or less matched the official compensation amount.

Unless the MQM pulls out all the stops to help the bereaved families, many of them its constituents, and ensures that each of them receives the minimum relief we owe them, one can be reasonably certain of one thing more.

Only Malik Riaz’s pledged compensation will get to the victims because he is perhaps the only one in the country who is capable of delivering whatever to whomsoever and wherever he wishes.

Here is our predicament, our real tragedy.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Dawn.

He tweets @abbasnasir59.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

Agha Ata
Sep 15, 2012 01:26pm
Pakistani's are trying to solve twenty first century?s problems with seventeenth century's knowledge and mindset. It is not a generation gap; it is a gap within each individual mind. Future has arrived too early for them, when they were not ready for it. Each individual is sitting inside his 17th-century-mind, but outside he is overwhelmed with problems of the future. He is sitting like a Mogul king in front of a computer wondering what to do with it.
Concerned Citizen
Sep 15, 2012 09:19pm
Money cannot buy back relatives and loved ones but it can make life easier for the remaining family members after their bread winners have been lost to this tragedy. They should not have to beg from people or be destiture for the remainder of their lives. I would strongly urge the government, philanthropic community and ordinary citizens to donate as much as they can and help every single suffering person - the elderly mom and dads, the sisters and other relatives who have lost their loved ones. My heart cries out for every single person affected and I am praying for the souls of those who are gone. What a tragedy this has been!!! The government must introduce new safety laws and enforce them immediately and hold those who do not comply accountable - yes, its wishful thinking in the present climate but what else can we ask for from the authorities. And to those political and religious parties who come out on streets to protest for issues that don't even concern them on a day to day basis and rather than raising hollow slogans like death to America, death to West, India, etc....or burning property and destroying their own buildings, why don't they take out rallies throughout Pakistan to ask for safety laws across the board and don't rest until the government accepts their demands? Pakistan is a dangerous country for its own citizens in that we have many disasters waiting to be unleashed - e.g. use of CNG cylinders everywhere, welding shops without safety measures, poor construction practices, poor hygyiene in restaurants, households, railway stations, hospitals, and other public places, smoking, lack of planning and accountability for floods, fires, electricity and many many other items that pose a serious threat to the lives of citizens. Wake up citizens and political leaders.....loss of this high number of lives should be an awakening for all of us!!
Sep 15, 2012 08:05pm
Very moving piece, Abbas Nasir. You have painted a very vivid picture of the horror...surely a vision of hell. Trafedy is that we will move on and forget till the next outrage and the next. My heart goes out to the victims.
Cyrus Howell
Sep 15, 2012 09:28pm
I doubt the fire brigades waited two hours. I know they didn't . That is an evasion by the guilty parties and their lawyers fed to the media.
Sep 15, 2012 10:56am
There is a lot of talk about the fire brigade arriving after two hours and yet not a squeak from the relevant authorities regarding the delay. Why?
Sep 15, 2012 11:02am
Not just emergency exit routes ! One must have INSURANCE POLICIES to cover the families of the victims of industrial ( and agricultural ) accidents .
Sep 15, 2012 06:03am
Every building should have means of escape (fire escapes) we all know accidents can happen but this is a terrible tragedy, how do you cope with losing several family members, money cannot compensate. Was this what we would call a Sweat shop (cheap labour) more people than there should be in the building?
Sep 15, 2012 03:07pm
corporate greed is a subject which is less discussed in our society specially society of newly rich.
irfan husain
Sep 15, 2012 10:25am
Actually, Pakistan is signatory to numerous ILO conventions aimed at making factories safe. The problem is not one of laws but their implementation. Labour inspectors receive fixed amounts from owners and hardly ever enter factory premises. These payments ensure that the seths won't have to spend money on fire extinguishers, security exits, medical kits, etc. The money goes into a pool that is divided among field staff and the senior officials of the Industries Ministry. The minister gets his share. What we have just seen in Karachi is the cost of corruption.