Tuesday February 27, 2024

After Bahawalpur

June 29, 2017

The year 2017 will go down in history for bringing a dark, depressingly blood-drenched Eidul Fitr for Pakistan. It is inconceivable for a nation to “celebrate” Eid when around 500 lives have been lost over the past few days.

The memories of the demonic acts of terrorism in Lashkargah, Quetta and Parachinar were still raw when the tragic oil tanker blast in Bahawalpur struck. It was a nationwide tragedy of unimaginable magnitude and claimed the lives of countless civilians. From the spectre of terrorism to the Bahawalpur tanker fire this Eid, the country mourns and bathes in blood.

There are countless nationwide fires at rice godowns as well as garment and tyre factories in Lahore and Karachi. During these incidents, firefighters often lack water for hoses to extinguish the flames – as was witnessed in the Beverley Centre in Blue Area. Such disasters are “avoidable”. Our careless and casual behaviour towards road and safety hazards and the desperation-induced negligence shown by the villagers of Ramzanpur Joya to collect the leaked fuel after the tanker had upturned is beyond tragic.

This became catastrophic when someone in the crowd – who was ignorant of the risks that flammable materials could present – lit a cigarette. This was an irresponsible act that sufficed to cause an explosion. To our own peril, we are a society living abysmally on the precipice of danger. Nigeria, Sudan and Congo – where oil blazes are common – regularly suffer a similar fate.

No amount of speeches, platitudes or judicial inquiry reports will halt such collective apathy. Law-enforcers, despite their best efforts, were unsuccessful in containing the crowds. Law-enforcers should have been given immediate access to reinforcements, anti-riot gear and crowd-control training.

As a health, safety and environment (HSE) trainer, this writer suggests that regular scrutiny and training of larger vehicles and a stricter mechanism of issuing licences are the need of the hour. In addition, road and safety measures, specialised defensive driving courses, air ambulances to rapidly airlift victims to the closest burn unit and mandatory burn units at every hospital – especially because 40 percent of burns are invariably fatal – are also vital.

It is time to impose mandatory speed limits for vehicles carrying hazardous materials. The federal government, oil-marketing companies, Ogra, NIH and other stakeholders need to widely disseminate awareness on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDC) and Dangerous Product Safety and Handling Protocol for highly flammable and ignitable material. Since billions of rupees are being collected as taxes on petroleum products, the competent authorities must increase spending on public health and safety.

Bahawalpur’s victims ignored the desperate pleas from the Motorway Police to stay away from the oil spill. This incident urgently necessitates an intensified nationwide emergency training to educate people on maintaining a safe distance from a disaster sites. We also require an emergency reserve of water supply, not just for hydrants but for firefighters. There is also a pressing need for an immediate supply of non-flammable material and oil canisters, mandatory labels on toxic material – especially on transport vehicles –and a more resilient and adequately-resourced fire brigade.

Once again, it is the army that is taking care of the injured. This is an urgent clarion call that we must improve the allocation of resources to our civilian and democratic institutions and provide them potent coping and crisis contingency mechanisms.

Bahawalpur’s oil blaze was compounded by a deficit of medical facilities and supporting infrastructure. This serves as a haunting reminder that we immediately require better staff, equipped emergency services, first-aid responders, more stretchers and swifter ambulances – like the ones Edhi blessed us with. Hospitals should be our top priorities instead of “vanity projects” such as bullet trains and superhighways – which are great aspirations for developed, first-world nations but remain ‘lustful luxuries’ for debt-stricken countries like Pakistan.

Cynics and naysayers who are reading this will lament that  in Pakistan – a nation where even during “deliberate” arson and fires like Baldia Town – known culprits and criminals roam scot-free, is it even reasonable to ponder over what hope lies during a genuine catastrophe like Bahawalpur?

We must now take matters into our own hands and instil hope. Until the aforementioned measures are not immediately enforced and resources aren’t adequately benchmarked and budgeted, we must keep adding fuel to the proverbial flames.


The writer is a freelance contributor.

Twitter: @ozerkhalid