The Bahawalpur petrol tanker disaster resulted in over 200 deaths and severe burn injuries to another 50 people. The tragic incident has evoked a wide-ranging discourse on the conduct and motives of people who rush to take advantage of even the slightest opportunity to reduce their deprivation in an increasingly unequal milieu.
In a society with such egregious inequalities, it is highly problematic, to say the least, to expect a common code of morality or social norms and etiquettes to prevail, especially in extraordinary circumstances. Even in highly developed societies, there is no dearth of examples when in extraordinary situations some people react opportunistically.
Before making broad generalisations and rushing to judgment, which some social critics have used to (misplacedly) harangue all and sundry for the phenomenon of ‘loot’ that is no doubt deeply embedded in the society, one needs to look at the specific circumstances of the incident.
But to club the plight (and motivation) of those who died in pursuit of scavenging spilled petrol, blissfully unmindful (ignorant) of the risk entailed in doing so, blinded by the temptation of saving some money by getting expensive petrol as a free good, with that of those who indulge in unbridled corruption and white collar crimes from which a high proportion get off scot free is grossly unfair, especially when it comes from the country’s leading champion of human rights and social justice.
The two kinds of felonies – if the Bahawalpur fire victims can be included in that category at all – are two different kettles of fish and to draw a moral equivalence between them is unacceptable.
The charred wreckage of dozens of motorcycles and a few small cars, along with kitchen utensils, pots, water coolers, jerry-cans and buckets brought to collect the petrol, littered around the burnt-down tanker, are tell-tale evidence of the victims’ penury. It is unimaginable to compare them with the Mayfair flats-owning scions of the Sharif family or the jet-setting, SUV-driving comrades-in-arms of the neo-populist Imran Khan.
Once the petrol was disembowelled from the crashed tanker, it had become worthless for whoever owned it and, if the tanker was insured, he would get recompensed for it, provided there were no violations of the law (which, as reported below, turned out not to be so).
In the event, it seems the victims have been vindicated by the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra which has held Shell Pakistan Limited (SPL) responsible for the incident, and has imposed a penalty of Rs10 million on SPL and has additionally ordered it to pay Rs1m each to the families of the deceased and Rs500,000 each – woefully inadequate as this may be – to the injured victims of the incident.
In its report, released on July 6, Ogra has stated that although the oil tanker had been outsourced, the responsibility of maintaining standards lay with Shell since it was the licensee of Ogra. According to Ogra’s three-member committee, the tanker did not meet the technical standards required to carry 50,000 litres of petrol and it did not meet the regulations of Ogra and the Department of Explosives. Additionally, the tanker was carrying a fake fitness certificate. The Ogra report attributed the ignition of fire to a lack of awareness among the general public and the lack or delay in response from the local government and motorway police to cordon off the area. It did not attribute greed or lust for loot – at least of the victims – as a major cause of the accident.
Dwelling on precautionary measures, the report recommended greater vigilance regarding safety standards for oil marketing companies (OMC), also asking them for a “timeline action plan for conversion of tank lorries of their contractor/haulier to the applicable safety laws and regulations”. It also recommended the Oil Companies Advisory Committee to ensure an aggressive campaign to make the public aware of hazards, and the local governments and departments to revisit their plans for patrolling and quick response.
Fire accidents are difficult to prevent and control even in developed countries, as was evidenced by the horrific fire in the 24-storey high Grenfell Towerblock of public housing flats in a west London suburb, just a week before the Bahawalpur tragedy, thousands of miles away.
Here too, while the immediate cause was the neglect of a resident on the fourth floor to repair a malfunctioning refrigerator, the rapid growth of the fire is believed to have been accelerated by the building’s exterior cladding, for which the contractor for the building’s renovation had used inferior and cheap material. The elephant in the room, as in the case of Bahawalpur, was corporate greed, not individual lust.
It is easy to be dismissive of ‘poverty and ignorance’ as being the exclusive and most oft-cited reason for our social dystopia. Yet, if there is a national consensus on anything, it is on the importance of education and eradication of poverty – two issues which successive governments have paid mere lip service to only for the sake of continuing in power. Without significant progress on these two fronts, the achievement of higher ideals, which many laudably espouse, will remain a day-dream.
The writer is a former professor of economics at QAU, Islamabad.