AN unspeakable tragedy in Bahawalpur district in the wake of devastating terrorist strikes in Parachinar and Quetta has cast a further pall over the Eid break. At a time of religious commemoration and cultural celebration, far too many families will be mourning their dead or praying for the injured.

The country joins them in their grief.

The Bahawalpur tragedy is numbing not only because of the vast number of dead and injured, but also because it was totally avoidable. It remains to be determined if the inferno was accidentally started or the work of an arsonist, but a catalogue of errors is already apparent. Whatever the origins of the accident, the poor preparedness of local emergency services has been thoroughly exposed.

An oil spill on a busy highway ought to have immediately triggered a response by the local authorities. The area should have been cordoned off and the threat of exposed petroleum contained.

Then, in the panic and desperation that followed the blaze, the emergency services were further exposed. Bahawalpur, it has become painfully obvious, has nowhere near the kind of emergency and medical facilities that nine years of PML-N rule should boast and that billions of rupees said to have been pumped into south Punjab ought to have created.

How many of the injured could have been saved had better emergency services been available at the site of the incident and in nearby hospitals will perhaps never be known. The chain of flaws —from highways with inadequate safety resources to medical services that were quickly overwhelmed — is a failure of government.

South Punjab has historically been underserved by all governments at the centre and in Punjab; there can be no quick fixes. But nine consecutive years of PML-N rule in the province do not appear to have set the region on the right trajectory.

Perhaps the most churlish response has been the insinuation in some quarters that the people trapped in the blaze have only themselves to blame. It was not poverty or desperation that caused people to race towards the spilled petroleum; it was a lack of safety awareness — again the state’s failure.

The victims had been unable to recognise the risk that the exposed petroleum posed to their lives. A broken public school system and a state that does not invest in creating safety awareness on the roads and in homes has meant individuals cannot easily recognise the dangers they may be exposing themselves to.

There is the original failure, too: the road accident that caused the oil tanker to spill its deadly cargo. Was the driver speeding? Does the business that owns the truck give safety training to its drivers? Did Eid-related traffic or driver exhaustion play a role? The Punjab government invests in gimmicky schemes like automated traffic tickets; what it has not done is overhaul the driver training and licensing system.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2017

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