HAVE you ever singed your finger while lighting a candle? Ever touched a frying pan before it has cooled off? If so, you’ll know that the pain is indeed intense even when the affected area is small. Now imagine what it feels like to have flames consume your entire body; to feel your skin peel and your flesh melt while your lungs choke with smoke. Imagine dying that way knowing that no one could possibly save you.
If your mind recoils at the very thought, then know that this is the fate that nine innocent children suffered when the village of Faiz Mohammad Daryani Chandio in Sindh’s Dadu district was reduced to ash last week.
The fire, which began in a kitchen, quickly spread from thatched house to thatched house, spurred by strong winds that defied the panicked attempts by locals to extinguish the blaze. Helpless, they were forced to watch as the inferno consumed their children, their homes, and the cattle and grain they rely on for survival. They called for help repeatedly, pleading with officials to send the fire brigade, to send any help at all. No one came.
That last part isn’t strictly true; the fire tender did arrive but 12 hours after the blaze had done its work. The deputy commissioner and superintendent of police of Dadu district did arrive on the scene some eight hours after the fire brigade arrived and the local MPA and MNA managed to get there three hours after them. By that time, the dead and injured had been shifted out, not in ambulances, but in police mobiles.
While officials dithered, children were burning to death.
It’s not as if the authorities didn’t know what was happening; local journalists claim they sent pictures of the blaze and those victims whose bodies had been recovered to the district commissioner and appealed for immediate help but there was no response. In desperation, they contacted the local assistant commissioner who claimed that he was on the spot but that the only available fire tender was deployed tackling another blaze. In reality, the journalists claim, he was nowhere near the scene of the blaze. And while officials dithered, obfuscated and shifted blame, children were burning to death.
This village is not located in some remote hinterland; it is a mere 30 kilometres from the town of Meher where, on paper at least, there are two fire tenders. In reality neither of them is functional. Seventy kilometres away is Dadu city itself which, as the headquarters of a district with a population of some 1,700,000, should be better equipped but even here we saw that fire trucks were either not functional or had no fuel, thanks to a system in which the fuel supply is controlled by a parallel official who usually cannot be contacted in times of emergency.
It’s not a question of funds; these departments receive sizable regular budgets for training employees and purchasing and maintaining vehicles. But in effect, these dysfunctional vehicles provide no service to the people, but instead, act as gold mines for corrupt officials who siphon off the funds meant for maintenance. The results were predictable and the price for this was paid in the screams of dying children.
Also predictable is the government’s response in the aftermath of this entirely preventable and absolutely inevitable tragedy; the chief minister arrived with a delegation and offered prayers for the dead while also pledging punishment for those responsible for what he admits was a “very slow” response. But how is it possible that such a situation wasn’t in the knowledge of the chief minister and this administration? Why did it take a tragedy for ‘notice’ to be taken? And if this is the situation in the PPP stronghold of Dadu, dare we ask what more remote areas of Sindh face?
This is a province in which Edhi ambulances do the work that the government is meant to do. This is a land which is inexplicably denied even the service of Rescue 1122, a service available in all other provinces of Pakistan, and when we ask why it is so, there is no good answer forthcoming. In the absence of explanation, the inevitable logical conclusion that we must draw is that this was not a failure of the system; this was the system working as it was meant to, because this ‘system’ is one of patronage delivered through a web of corruption that drains funds meant for public welfare into the pockets of handpicked officials and their henchmen.
If more proof was needed, there came a video of policemen pilfering relief goods meant for the victims and taking them away to their homes in the cover of night. While those policemen have since been suspended, the fact remains that they too were simply working as expected by the system in place; a system of graft and greed in which the loss of lives and livelihoods of citizens isn’t a bug, but a feature.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2022