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Wise words on a day of shame

September 14, 2012

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THEIR more fortunate compatriots often talk disparagingly of the Pakistani poor but the wisdom and stoicism of many of these deprived souls leaves one dumbfounded.

As the full horror of the Baldia Town inferno began to unfold, the pain of the victims’ families seemed to leap out of the television screens and embed itself into many, many hearts across Pakistan and wherever else the tragedy was being witnessed.

It was difficult to imagine the grief of the man who told a reporter he’d lost four daughters, a son and a sister trapped in the garment factory. The area’s deputy commissioner described the burning building as a “cage” with no escape routes.

It was impossible to comprehend what the woman was going through who said she’d been alerted by a frantic phone call from a trapped woman to the danger to her two sons in the burning building (all three perished).

She said this was around six in the evening. She rushed to the factory. And saw smoke billowing out of the windows and flames rising to all the floors. It was at least two hours before the first fire engines arrived, she said.

“Till then there were largely people from the nearby localities, volunteers from the local MQM unit, Pakhtuns, Hazarawal, some others, mostly those whose loved ones were trapped inside. They were scurrying to buy coils of rope to help those at the windows that could be opened.”

“All the efforts in the crucial first couple of hours were on a self-help basis. But, for my two sons and many others like them, it wasn’t enough … it’s been nearly 24 hours and I have been to all the hospitals and not found them. Nobody is able to tell me anything,” the woman added.

“Do you have any demand for the government?” asked the TV reporter.

“Yes, for God’s sake create a system [for such emergencies] so that Pakistan doesn’t become helpless like me, a widow who has lost two sons and has no one to fall back on except Allah,” she responded, her voice for the first time quivering with the weight of her grief.

That she was so stoic and able to see so clearly what the real issue was, and then articulate it with such dignity despite her own bereavement, left me speechless. Although none of us will ever fathom her loss, I am sure I must have been one among millions who couldn’t hold back the tears.

It would have been fitting if all those in government, notably the PPP and MQM, would have gone public with an acknowledgment of failure and offered an apology before devoting themselves to a demonstrable effort to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.

However, even in the midst of this grave national tragedy it was soon clear we would do as we always do. Accept little or no responsibility and pass the buck. In short, the reaction of the leadership was predictably gutless. This isn’t how we assert ownership over a city and its people.

Half a dozen inquiries have been ordered including one by the minister of industries himself.

In a rare and only positive move, the industries minister has resigned. One hopes this facilitates an impartial inquiry into the tragedy where his own department will also be under scrutiny.

The resignation is symbolic for now. It’ll prove meaningful only if the inquiry is robust. Particularly in a country where nobody has been held to account for even disasters such as the Ojheri camp explosion or the security breach which enabled Osama bin Laden to live here and then be killed by US forces.

The irony is one could have as easily been talking of the fire in the Lahore factory and those at the helm there. In each incident, it would have been much better for the VIPs to monitor events from afar. Their large retinues only hamper the emergency effort.

This tragedy is crying out for unanimity such as the one witnessed in the passage of the 18th to the 20th amendments so that we never have to bear such a huge loss again. Legislation is needed as is a system that kicks in when such emergencies occur.

Our industrial elite have enough international exposure. They aren’t ignorant. Till parliament legislates and systems are created, can one hope they’ll voluntarily introduce health and safety measures in their units so that at least the contract workers’ right to life is protected?

It’s a vain hope as we all know the tragedy will be forgotten as soon as the images recede from the TV screens and the next outlandish political controversy or, even worse, the next terrorist attack or sectarian murder dominates the news agenda.

We’ll cope with this latest ache as we have done with all other aches: through self-induced amnesia. What’s certain then, as we speak? Given the voices of the bereaved we have heard, we can be sure that poverty cuts across all ethnicities and Karachi cradles all of them in its lap.

The government has announced compensation for the victims’ families, quite a few of whom lost more than one member and, in many cases, their sole breadwinner. Tainted tycoon Malik Riaz has more or less matched the official compensation amount.

Unless the MQM pulls out all the stops to help the bereaved families, many of them its constituents, and ensures that each of them receives the minimum relief we owe them, one can be reasonably certain of one thing more.

Only Malik Riaz’s pledged compensation will get to the victims because he is perhaps the only one in the country who is capable of delivering whatever to whomsoever and wherever he wishes.

Here is our predicament, our real tragedy.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com