WATCHING a human tragedy become subsumed in a political blame game is always painful. This is exactly what happened in the National Assembly on Monday when the lawmakers decided to debate the causes and lapses that led to the preventable loss of at least 23 lives, including women and children, after thousands in their vehicles were stranded in a massive snowstorm in and around Murree.
The opposition was within its rights when PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif expressed his lack of trust in a committee formed by the Punjab government to hold a probe into the tragic events of the last weekend. He wanted the government to set up a judicial commission to fix responsibility.
Read more: Lessons of Murree
What is wrong with that demand? If the government can constitute judicial commissions on other matters, why could it not agree to the opposition’s demand? Sadly, the treasury benches saw this as an opportunity for point-scoring and assailed the leader of the opposition, accusing the previous PML-N governments of not doing anything for tourism in the country instead of explaining their reasons, if they had any valid justification, for opposing the suggestion. The government did not even consider another proposal from the ANP to create a bipartisan parliamentary body for investigating the tragedy.
The opposition parties are not the only ones blaming the Punjab government — and by extension the Imran Khan administration — for not taking prior measures to prevent the disaster despite the forecast of heavy snowfall by the Met Office and its warning to the authorities to be alert as bad weather could force closure of the roads in an area where vehicular mobility is problematic even in normal conditions. Rather than mobilising machinery to clear the snow-covered roads for smooth traffic movement and issuing alerts to warn incoming tourists or turn them back, the administration let them in. Meanwhile, as pointed by PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, ministers were flaunting the arrival of tens of thousands of cars in Murree as a sign of the increasing domestic tourism and economic upturn achieved under the PTI rule.
That is not all. When the tragedy began to unfold, there was no one around to respond to the SOS calls from those trapped in the snow or their frantic families and friends. Relief came too late and too slow, with a lag of at least 20 hours. And when the news of multiple deaths broke, the government went on to first blame the victims for not heeding the weather forecast and then the disaster management authority and local administration for inaction. The prime minister tweeted that he was shocked and upset at the tragedy. If everyone from the country’s chief executive to the opposition leader agree that the tragedy was avoidable but for the lack of preparedness of the authorities concerned, it is hard to grasp the logic behind the rejection of the demand for a judicial inquiry.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2022