NO one expects to go on holiday to see death at work. The carnage caused by the recent snowstorm in Murree, which trapped thousands of eager tourists in their cars, was the sort of tragedy they would have preferred to read about rather than experience.
The official death toll has been confirmed at 23 casualties. Survivors who managed to escape from their cars and walked past stranded vehicles speak of many more. The exact number has already frozen into a statistic — like the roll call of 141 school children and staff of the Army Public School in Peshawar, massacred in December 2014. Or the 258 workers burned alive in a textile factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town in September 2012.
The Peshawar children, the Karachi workers, the tourists inching nose-to-tail to see Murree shrouded in snow began their day with every expectation that they would return home by evening. Instead, they were lost to a premature night. Their deaths were an unconscionable waste of their lives. Negligent officials feel no shame nor sense of responsibility. Their failures scar us as a society.
Negligent officials’ failures scar us as a society.
Tragedies such as these should unite a country. In Pakistan, they become yet another reason for abrasive division between factional interests. The frozen bodies of the Murree victims have barely thawed before politicians have begun scoring goals with their remains.
The Gog/Magog of the PTI government (the ministers of interior and of information) were quick to visit Murree, accompanied by television crews charged with broadcasting their snow-flake concern. They were followed by the Punjab chief minister who scanned the catastrophe below from the heated comfort of his helicopter. One was reminded of another such PR exercise in November 1970, when, after the Bhola cyclone, President Yahya Khan flew over flood-affected areas of a sodden East Pakistan, above the stench of bloated bodies and animal carcasses.
Accounts of that catastrophe make sad re-reading. Well before it struck, an American specialist Dr Gordon Dunn (director of the US National Hurricane Centre) had been called in by the federal government to advise on disaster minimisation. His basic recommendations – ‘erecting simple earth mounds on the islands and the low-lying coasts for families and their livestock to take shelter’ were ignored. Instead, ‘more than 90 per cent of the 500,000 who perished in this disaster’ need not have died.
The 1970 flood victims died due to ‘inefficiency, procrastination and downright neglect on the part of Pakistani government officials.’ Fifty years later, the words applied to that avoidable tragedy could be reused with renewed remorse to Murree 2021.
Those with history books will recall the electoral aftermath of the 1970 floods. A mourning East Pakistan voted overwhelmingly against a callous West Pakistan. One wonders how many voters from Murree in the next elections will vote for the PTI leader who shared their grief from his frost-free Banigala enclave?
Some sociologists interpret the increasing influx of privately owned vehicles into Murree each year as a measure of the increasing affluence of the middle class. Some families had travelled from as far away as Karachi to savour the attractions of Murree — once the Queen of the Hills, now a bedraggled, overworked handmaiden.
Modern tourists continue a tradition instituted by the British since the 1860s. Murree has developed since then from ‘a sanitarium, to a depot, then to a hill station, and finally evolved into a hill resort’. For anyone who nurses nostalgia for old Murree, the late Dr Farakh A. Khan’s book Murree during the Raj (2013) is the next best thing to a refreshing stroll in its gullies.
Rather like Dr Dunn, Dr Khan warned governments and civil administrators of impending dangers — in Murree’s case, from mismanaged tourism and unbridled commercialisation in a resort that has finite resources and limited amenities.
‘Sadly’, Dr Khan wrote, ’the Pakistani population has little respect for laws[.] Rampant corruption and collapse of governance offers little hope for Murree. Let there be endless traffic jams [.] It seems that Murree may be controlled only when it becomes unlivable. The future of Murree as Pakistan’s premier hill resort is grim.’
Every government makes tourism a priority, hoping it is the magnet which will attract foreign tourists. Events such as the catastrophe at Murree, however, explain why Pakistan is still very low on the list of desirable holiday destinations. It is the country, as the cricketer Ian Botham once said sneeringly, to which he would send his mother-in-law for a vacation.
One voice noticeably silent about the Murree tragedy was that of the chairman, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. In 2018, the PTDC boasted that the British Backpacker Society considered Pakistan ‘the top country for adventure travel’. In 2022, his PTDC will need to do something more substantive if it is to entice even mothers-in-laws to Pakistan.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2022