WHAT was intended to be a weekend getaway turned into an icy deathtrap for thousands of families who ended up stranded in their cars on the snow-covered roads leading into Murree. At the time of writing, at least 22 people, including 10 children, had frozen to death inside the vehicles and rescue efforts by armed forces and paramilitary agencies were underway.
The tragedy could have easily been avoided if the authorities had taken a less cavalier approach towards the bad weather conditions and issued timely warnings to tourists. For almost all of the past week, heavy rains have lashed Islamabad and Rawalpindi while Murree and nearby hill stations in the Galiyat area have received intermittent but heavy snowfall.
Notwithstanding this, a record number of people travelled northbound to experience the snowfall. News reports quoting traffic authorities revealed that more than 155,000 vehicles entered Murree in the past week, out of which 135,000 returned safely but the rest became stranded.
Read: Met Office’s heavy snowfall warnings went unheeded
The large inflow of tourists notwithstanding, which is mainly because the government makes no attempt at regulating the numbers, why did the authorities wait a whole week for the situation to get out of control? Hill stations have limited capacity, with Murree only being able to accommodate 4,000 cars at a given time, so why was such a huge number of vehicles allowed to continue onward? Moreover, in light of the dire weather forecast, the authorities should have issued travel alerts to the public, warning families to desist from making weekend travel plans to the hill station.
To suggest that this tragedy occurred merely due to the unprecedented tourist rush is an attempt by authorities at shrugging off responsibility — not to mention tantamount to rubbing salt in the wounds of those mourning the sudden and heart-rending loss of their loved ones. Further entry of vehicles in Murree was banned only on Friday, at least five days after the snowfall began. It remains to be seen whether the enquiry announced by the PM will issue a finding of blatant negligence on the part of any official or government department. It is deeply unfortunate that it takes such a massive loss of life for the authorities to realise the significance of vigilance and timely action, the bare minimum to be expected from the government. Regulating the inflow of tourists to hill stations in light of existing infrastructure is imperative to avoid further tragedies like this.
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2022