Lessons of Murree

Published January 11, 2022
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

THE Murree tragedy has shocked the nation. As per news reports, 22 people froze to death on the snowy roads while attempting to enjoy the hill station precincts with friends and family. Multiple agencies jump-started the relief and rescue work too late to prevent what was an avoidable loss of life. Inquiries have been ordered to ascertain the reasons behind this devastating outcome. An objective and dispassionate assessment is needed to learn from this episode and avoid repeating the mistakes in future.

The environs of Murree and the larger region constitute a fragile ecology, further exacerbated by the extreme weather cycles that go hand-in-hand with climate change. Its altitude, forestation, cooler weather, scenic spots and relatively improved accessibility imbue it with extraordinary attraction for domestic tourists. During winters, the snowfall is a sought-after experience drawing many to flock to the hill station.

However, as a location with constrained ingress and exit options, this mobility can become problematic. Reportedly, more than 100,000 cars were found heading to Murree which has a parking capacity far less than that. Keeping the snow-covered roads operational requires careful implementation of certain SOPs developed in this regard. It seems SOPs existed for managing such a situation but were not complied with. These may be revised and updated in light of current trends and the emerging situation.

Private cars must be completely banned from entering Murree to effectively manage available parking and prevent road congestion. An incentive-based intervention must be planned to operate sturdy vans and coasters fully equipped to withstand harsh weather and emergencies like snowstorms. This will enable more people to visit and enjoy themselves without the risk of getting stranded.

Simple planning methods can ensure convenience and safety for visitors.

Emergency response centres must be set up at short distances to attend to any untoward situation. Tourism authorities, in coordination with other concerned public agencies, may develop a patrolling mechanism to ensure a smooth traffic flow. A tourism advisory and information app must be developed for potential visitors. In high season, the departments concerned must launch a compulsory tourist registration regime so the administration can obtain the exact data about visitors, time duration of expected stay and other necessary details.

Such a tragedy can happen anywhere for different reasons. All such places that receive a high number of visitors can be identified by respective government agencies. Tourist resorts in different settings, shrines and places of religious congregation, temporary and permanent marketplaces, corridors of movement and educational institutions are some categories.

Unfortunately, our history is replete with avoidable accidents and mishaps that happened due to authorities’ unpreparedness and callousness. Not too long ago, many tourists were looted on the way to Swat by armed bandits and left stranded. Traffic jams, accidents and other such irritants along the roads to northern areas are commonplace. Many shrines have been targeted in terror attacks.

It goes without saying that local administrations are aware of the critical mass of devotees that visit shrines during Urs commemoration rituals. By using simple planning methods, convenience and safety can be ensured for visitors and other stakeholders. Projecting visitor population, modes of transport, assessment of accommodation facilities, timeline of activities, concentration points, etc must be examined for maximum convenience and safety for all. Besides, possible threat and disruption factors must be identified and consequently neutralised. Collaboration with the shrine management is essential.

To manage sites that receive a higher than average footfall, the concept of carrying capacity must be applied. This is a fundamental concept that informs us about the availability of resources needed to sustain a critical mass of people, wildlife, flora and fauna in a finite location. It is also used to examine the extent of damage that can be caused to fragile ecologies and sites due to over-subscription and uncontrolled harm to environmental assets. For instance, when the planned freight traffic will pass through the roads in the Gilgit-Baltistan region under CPEC arrangements, its ecology will be adversely affected.

Similarly, the changing lifestyles of our urban middle-classes will put pressure on available resorts and sought-after tourist destinations. If provincial administrations wish to avoid tragedies like the one at Murree, they will have to plan and organise these activities in a scientific manner. Stringent management of visitors, curtailing private vehicles, regulating the hotels and guesthouses, timely responses to weather advisories, devising a dependable communication system, emergency response improvement and tourist education programmes are some pre-requisites.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2022

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