AS much as officialdom may wish, the issue of the toxic gas leak in Karachi’s Keamari port area last month is not about to quietly dissipate into thin air. A sessions court in the city has summoned two law-enforcement officers over the refusal by the local police to file an FIR against relevant personnel over the death of several people allegedly due to noxious fumes. The tragedy took place in mid-February when hundreds of people began experiencing respiratory distress and other symptoms. Around 400 individuals had to be rushed to hospital; the news sparked panic in the area and the city at large — notwithstanding some stunningly tone-deaf photo-ops by government officials. At least 10 of those affected died over the next couple of days. It was the son of one of the victims who made the unsuccessful attempt to lodge the FIR, and then approached the court seeking redressal.

The entire case typifies the authorities’ lackadaisical approach to matters of public importance and their indifference to the people’s right to demand answers and expect accountability. More than two weeks after it occurred, there is still no confirmation as to what caused the leak; it remains as much of a mystery as ever. Conjecture and surmise has given way to official silence. The generally accepted version is that the phenomenon was caused by “exposure to soybean dust”, spread through the air by improper unloading of a ship carrying containers of soybean. However, a number of experts have refuted this view. They say that if this was so, then one would imagine the unloading crew must have been the most severely affected; by all accounts, that was not the case. Has any investigation been carried out into possible SOP violations at the port? What were the findings? If the cause has not been determined and no loopholes plugged, how can a repetition of such a horrific event be prevented? But as usual, it seems, what is out of sight is out of mind.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2020

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