The Murree tragedy – another bandage for a broken system
A few years ago, a relative told me that the difference between Pakistan and the western world is a lack of ‘personal responsibility’. Having lived in America for most of his life, I believe his statement stemmed from looking at American citizens doing everything on their own – working long hours, running the house, raising children, paying their taxes – with little or no help and complaint. In comparison, an average Pakistani family often has help either in the form of domestic staff or many family members living in large households, and yet there is an almost constant barrage of complaints accompanied with a relatively low sense of personal responsibility.
A younger me at the time understood and agreed with much of what he said. However, as I grow older and assess the increasingly crippling problems that plague our society, I realise that his statement was largely uninformed and shallow, although not entirely incorrect. Yes, we are conditioned to exist amidst the support of people and, perhaps, are less ‘personally responsible’. Nevertheless, a major factor behind this co-dependency is the lack of basic infrastructure and facilities such as an uninterrupted supply of electricity, power and gas, strong road networks, regularly maintained sewerage systems, and planned housing.
This brings me to the recent tragedy in Murree. Having moved to Canada very recently, this heart-breaking incident with people and their cars buried in the snow – and entire families possibly dying from suffocation – hits very close to home as I sit here staring at the snow falling outside. Since it started snowing here earlier this month, I have seen snow movers and cleaners do their rounds at all hours of the day in vehicles equipped with a closed cab for the driver to keep him protected from the harsh cold and snow. Imagine being all alone out in the cold, cleaning a parking lot at one in the morning before moving on to the next area. It is tedious to say the least, and I cannot imagine many in Pakistan who would do this without complaining.
However, the difference is not simply in the mindset and conditioning that a ‘lack of personal responsibility’ seems to imply. It is in the resources, support and compensation given to these workers here in Canada. A snowplough driver can earn around $50,000 per year, enabling them to lead a decent life. These workers are trained and given safety equipment and machinery which is maintained regularly. On the other hand, news coverage of the tragedy in Murree showed civilians and military workers shovelling away piles of snow mostly with sticks and shovels which I am sure slowed down rescue operations and hence lowered the likelihood of taking people out of their vehicles faster and alive. Moreover, manual shovelling of such proportions is also tough on the people carrying out the task and can cause heart and respiratory problems. The infrastructure was and is clearly not prepared for the prospective tourism the government seems to have been touting so proudly.
I am sure after the tragedy many of you must have heard about carbon monoxide poisoning, which happens when the car engine is left running for a long time with the exhaust pipe blocked by the snow, causing the gas to spread inside the car. Since it is an odourless gas, it goes largely undetected and can cause people to suffocate and die in less than 2 hours.
I ask you, how many of the poor victims trapped in their cars knew this fact? Was it their responsibility to know this or is the government responsible for educating people?
This brings me to another aspect of government support and awareness painfully absent in Pakistan. Many people drive in Pakistan without passing their driving test and going through the handbook of rules and regulations, primarily because those rules are not followed on the roads. I have no idea if Pakistan even has driving rules for winter in the handbook, particularly for areas which receive heavy snowfall. In Canada, one cannot pass the knowledge test without knowing all the rules, including:
- Keeping your exhaust pipe clear of snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
- Clearing the exhaust pipe before starting the engine and avoiding running the engine in closed spaces
- Turning the engine on for around five minutes after every hour if drivers find themselves stuck in snow
- Changing the tyres from summer to winter tyres (and vice versa) on scheduled dates to prevent skidding and accidents in winter
On the other hand, survivors and witnesses from the Murree disaster are now reporting how people stuck in the snow were charged exorbitant prices by the locals to purchase chains for their tyres to prevent slipping, as well as for basic commodities like water and food. Not only is this again a glaring gap in government-implemented regulations as roads were not repaired in two years despite the hike in tourism, but it also points to bigger problems. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the locals’ resentment at not benefiting from the revenue generated through tourism by the government in Murree, and the fact that tourists often litter in public places and can be unnecessarily rambunctious and disrespectful.
So, do we then lack personal responsibility because of the absence of government regulations and support? As a nation, we do lack discipline and blatantly rebuke regulations. We rely more on hearsay and passing on the blame instead of following given guidelines and basic common sense. It is precisely this thought-process which prevented these tourists from following weather warnings, including the possibility of road closures issued by the meteorological department before the weekend arrived. However, saying that people in Pakistan lack personal responsibility like my relative did or blaming the people for rushing to Murree without checking the weather conditions like Prime Minister Imran Khan did, is a statement given from a position of privilege. When the state creates laws and regulations, and when the state implements those laws, civilians have no choice but to follow. If the highway had been closed keeping in mind the weather conditions, many would not journey to Murree. Rescuing people from more than 100,000 vehicles in harsh weather conditions with insufficient equipment is a tall and dangerous task, and it could have been avoided with better management.
Unfortunately, it looks like this tragedy will pan out like all our previous losses, with civilians looking to the government for answers and compensation while the federal and provincial governments fight amongst themselves in a never-ending blame game. I ask you, is a Rs800,000 compensation package for the victims’ families going to bring their loved ones back? Is upgrading Murree’s administrative status from tehsil to district, as proposed, going to matter until and unless it is backed with actual improvements in regulations and infrastructure?
Time and again we pride ourselves for our resilience and tenacity, but sadly all we are is a nation adept at putting on bandages and clearing arteries while being painfully incompetent in changing our lifestyles, questioning the status quo and overhauling the system – be it in our homes, at the community level or at the state level. Personal responsibility is undoubtedly the obligation of each individual, but it has to come from the top-down. Those governing us must ensure they are personally and collectively responsible before expecting and demanding the same from each citizen.
Otherwise, tragedies like Murree will keep happening.
And we will eventually run out of bandages – or citizens.