Tezgam tragedy

Updated November 01, 2019

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THE Tezgam inferno near Liaquatpur in southern Punjab is a horrible reminder of the dangerous times we continue to live in, especially in a land exposed to perils that should have been eliminated long ago.

More than 70 lives have been lost in the fire that broke out early Thursday morning in the train as it journeyed upcountry from Karachi.

The railways minister added insult to injury when he blamed passengers for using a gas cylinder which caused the fire. Surely, if he was able to so quickly solve this mystery, he could have gone on to specify which passenger was responsible. Or did he mean that all of them were equally to blame? The real question is: who allowed those gas cylinders into the train?

Regrettably, accidents involving Pakistan Railways are frequent, and there have been a series of them during the year-old tenure of Minister Sheikh Rashid. A dozen of them have been categorised as ‘major’.

Incidents of fire breaking out on trains in the country are also quite common.

Railways officials reported 12 fires over one year to the National Assembly during a briefing in July. In four of them, the fire had erupted in the dining cars that accompany the passenger bogies. There were at least eight incidents of fire elsewhere on trains.

Yet it took a fatal blaze of this magnitude for Sheikh Rashid to come up with the assurance that henceforth, the ban on carrying items such as filled gas cylinders on trains would be strictly enforced.

Many of those killed were said to be going to Raiwind for the tableeghi congregation. The minister said the ban extended to tableeghi members who, by his own admission, had been given some kind of an exemption on this count. This is an admission of negligence, and bound to fuel demands for the resignation of those in charge of Pakistan Railways in aid of a fair inquiry.

If the official response offered a sense of regret it was drowned in the effort to paint a perfect picture of what the railways would look like after the government approved a proposed reform scheme. This is an ill-timed reiteration of the vows regarding a turnaround, and eclipses many issues related to the day-to-day running of the railways.

The railways minister might congratulate himself for coming up with a supposedly ingenious lottery scheme to hire new staff and go on endlessly on the need for funds to transform the system. But such thinking is at best an escape from reality, and does nothing whatsoever to address problems such as broken and crumbling tracks, improperly operated railway crossings, the lack of vigilance and security, and many other challenges plaguing the Railways.

The louder the pledges, the more obvious the contrast becomes between what is and what ought to be.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019