As the nation has been watching with horror the images coming out of snowstorm-hit Murree and hope that we never have to see such a calamity again, I cannot stop thinking about the young police officer who along with his beautiful family got stuck in the snow and how none of them could not survive that dreadful cold night. This thought alternates with me with thoughts of my own children playing and enjoying the snowfall in Murree only a few days back. Last week's snowstorm disaster is a trauma that will stay with a Murreephile like me for a long time.
So what went wrong? Well, to be fair, at least part of the reason is our collective apathy when it comes to strong urban governance and sustainable environmental practices. Murree has been our top most visited resort since independence and while the elite may have found other places to spend their vacations in, majority of Pakistanis did not have many options and stuck to this beautiful colonial hill town for their brief holidays.
Murree continues to be run from Lahore with very weak local government as elsewhere in the country, limited building regulations leading to monstrous hotels and apartments cropping up, poor waste management systems with trash everywhere, smelly sewage flowing all around and an unregulated and predatory hospitality industry doing the rest in destroying this only mainstream tourist resort for Pakistanis. There is also limited focus on traffic management as well as an effective communications system to inform the public at large about any weather warnings. And yes, while we can try putting all the blame on the government in its role as enforcer, there is a need for general public awareness and ethically responsible local business practices to ensure that Murree is revived to its formal glory.
Hopefully, this disaster will bring the government, businesses and people together to ensure that in the future no precious lives are lost due to our collective callousness and disrespect for nature. Following are some steps that can be considered in order to ensure a sustainable eco-friendly Murree continuing to thrive as a resort of choice for the people:
Establishment of a Murree Development Authority: First and foremost, Murree should be brought under an empowered and autonomous Murree Development Authority (MDA). The authority used to exist a few decades back but was subsequently revoked. I would have liked to advocate for a strong local government in Murree like we had under the 2001 local government regime but then that very strong local government is partly responsible for allowing unregulated mushrooming buildings in Murree; so we can perhaps live with an autonomous development authority. The Galiyat Development Authority model in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one example of such local authorities and the model can be improved upon and implemented in Murree as well. The authority should be mandated with the enforcement of recently approved building codes, waste disposal, traffic management, quality control when it comes to hotel and restaurant standards, and most importantly it should be allowed independent revenue collection from local sources.
Building code and regulations: After an early 2000s construction bonanza, Murree remained under some sort of construction ban for the next 15 years. However, it then saw another unregulated construction boon in the last three years. Recently, the government has again passed some building regulations which will hopefully put a break on this haphazard urban sprawl.
In the future, there should be a strict ban on new commercial construction and all construction in violation of building codes should be dismantled to establish authority. In the colonial era, there used to be a rule that no one could block another property’s valley view. That rule no longer exists and the result is an eyesore of buildings all around Mall Road with no parking space and proper waste disposal systems. It may be a bit late now for a revival of Murree of yesteryears but reinstating such rules is the least we can do to stop further degradation.
Waste collection and disposal: During rush season in summers and in winters, Murree starts to stink. There is trash all around and sewage is flowing into what used to be natural nullahs or streams. The waste disposal was outsourced few years back but perhaps the contractors need to be better monitored and incentivised to ensure cleanliness.
As a start, the administration should consider banning plastic bags, including chips and biscuits wrappings, as well as plastic water bottles that can contain less than a litre. These items contribute to the bulk of the trash in Murree. Similarly, options around waste compaction techniques and bringing the waste to factories in the plains to be recycled should also be explored.
Traffic management: In my book, ‘Once upon a time in Murree’, I had suggested to my readers not to visit Murree during the weekends and on national holidays, not knowing that there was going to be a disaster so soon. And while implementation is indeed difficult, the government should manage the inflow of traffic into Murree. It is not that the government isn't capable of doing it, it did so very efficiently during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, which demonstrates that this is more about planning and less about a capacity to implement. Luckily, Murree has limited entry points, which include toll plazas on Murree Expressway and Kashmir Highway, Jhika Gali, Kuldana and Sunny Bank. And since the Mall Road is most visitors' key attraction, if these entry points are restricted, it will disincentivise people to head towards Murree in the first place.
The government should fix a maximum number of tourists in Murree at any given point and then use these entry points to regulate that traffic inflow. There are now technological solutions like online visit permits, which should be explored to manage visitors’ traffic. Also, there should be a clearly advertised preference for families intending to go to Murree at all times but especially during weekends and national holidays.
Regulating businesses: Hotels and restaurants in Murree do not follow decent quality standards; they also overcharge customers and seldom pay taxes. And worse, if the going gets tough for tourists as it happened this week, some of them increase their rates arbitrarily. Governments should develop a strict standards monitoring and enforcement system, something like a customer feedback system, where hotels are rated as per the customers' reviews, ensure food and lodging standards and ensure that these businesses pay taxes to run Murree on a sustainable eco-friendly basis.
Parking spaces: During peak season or national holidays, Murree is reported to accommodate more than 100,000 vehicles as against a parking space of perhaps some 5,000 vehicles. The government should develop large parking plazas near Sunny Bank, Jhika Gali, Mussiari Village, Kuldana and Bansra Gali etc. Day visitors should only be allowed to take some sort of eco-friendly electric vehicles from the parking places to Murree and only visitors with valid overnight hotel bookings should be allowed to proceed towards the Murree ridge. This option should take care of a big chunk of the vehicular congestion issue in Murree.
Water supply: Water supply was the reason Murree lost to Simla as the summer headquarter of Punjab in 1876. Later in the 1890s, a water pipeline was laid from Donga Gali to Murree and its water problem was solved to a great extent for the next century at least. But with burgeoning local and tourist population, it is again time for the government to think about additional water sources, like pumping water in from the Jhelum. Water-scarcity in Murree also remains an important cause of lack of hygiene and disease prevalence in the region.
Weather advisory: While a weather advisory was indeed issued before last week’s snowstorm, the government could have definitely done better with communicating it widely and ensuring that Murree and other snow bound areas have adequate snow removing machinery and equipment. Again, a strong local body or authority with decent revenue collection should be able to invest in such equipment.
Revenue collection: Murree is host to millions of visitors every year, with its hotels, restaurants and other businesses doing a roaring business all year around. The suggested Murree Development Authority should be able to collect enough revenue from this substantial economic activity. Some of the avenues in this regard include services tax on hotels and restaurants, Murree entry fees for both visitors and vehicles, waste collection and disposal fees, water supply fees etc. There should be a prohibitively high congestion fees for private vehicles entering Murree at all times but only after the government has established a decent public transport system in and around the resort town.
Public awareness: A key to preventing such disasters from happening in the future is public awareness about their rights and obligations. There are limited public awareness campaigns on explaining responsibilities of citizens towards ensuring livable cities for our future generations. Such awareness campaigns should focus on eco-friendly ethos, proper waste disposal, weather conditions, people's rights and obligations while dealing with businesses and with each other etc.
We have seen a very successful public awareness campaign in Covid times, with people actually following government instructions to a large extent. Perhaps, we need something similar in Murree and other cities.
Murree is a beautiful town with some lovely heritage spread all across. It is time that local authorities sit together and come up with an alternative vision for Murree. One suggestion is to shift food joints on Mall Road to lower bazaar, developing it into a food street, and leaving Mall Road for traditional colonial restaurants, books and coffee shops.
Ideally, the valley view on Mall Road should be opened up by dismantling all illegal construction obstructing it. A good example comes from the cantonment authorities who have kept their part of Murree spanking clean with some beautiful landscaping and display of Murree's history and heritage. Such efforts can be replicated all over Murree ridge.
There is also a need to establish a Murree museum on the ridge so that people can know about Murree’s past and its heritage. The strip from Pindi Point to Kashmir Point should be declared ‘pedestrian only’ and only local government managed eco-friendly vehicles should be allowed to transport people if needed.
Murree is full of colonial heritage with some lovely hotels, villas, churches and schools spread all over the ridge and its slopes. Students of Lawrence College, Convent and Kohsar University should conduct heritage tours of the town as is common around the world and help visitors understand the history of this lovely hill town.
Similarly, the walls and roofs of buildings on Murree slopes should be painted in eco-friendly colours. And lastly, the Murree ridge is largely plain in gradient and cycling stations following the Zu Peshawar model should be established for people to ride and enjoy.
These are some simple suggestions but perhaps by implementing them, we may be able to save Murree from further destruction and ensure that we leave a better place for our future generations. Hopefully, someone is listening.