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Lessons from the inferno


July 1, 2017

It was mind-numbing. It was soul-piercing. Over 170 deaths have been confirmed in the Bahawalpur oil tanker fire. Dozens of people are still in critical condition and fighting for their lives.

It was a massive tragedy – especially for a country that has witnessed so many tragedies over the last decade or so. The burning to death of over 170 people will affect hundreds of families associated with the deceased. Their families, who already grinding under the weight of poverty and destitution, have now been pushed to the brink of destruction as a majority of them have been deprived of their able-bodied and sole bread winners.   

Taking place on the heels of a string of terrorist incidents in Quetta, Parachinar and Karachi, the tanker explosion near Bahawalpur turned the festive occasion of Eidul Fitr into a national tragedy marked by immense grief and sorrow that swept across the land. While an inquiry into the tragedy ordered by the government will bring the facts to light in due course, the heart-rending incident has given origin to questions at a broader level. It is therefore important that a debate is initiated to analyse the factors responsible for our conduct under such circumstances. It is equally important to learn our lessons from this cataclysmic event in an effort to avoid similar incidents in future.

As soon as the tanker overturned and oil started flowing into the fields, a sea of people were persuaded – either by word of mouth or through announcement on loudspeakers – to collect free petrol. There was limited realisation of the potential risks involved in taking such a careless step.

The questions that have emerged after the incident involve the lack of safety awareness. It has been repeatedly pointed out that our educational system falls woefully short of the challenge of training our youth about the importance of socially responsible behaviour. There is substantial empirical research to prove that the seeds of attitudinal change are shown in our minds at a young age. The impressions our children get from their books as well as the lectures delivered by their teachers have an everlasting impact.

The next stage of our impressions taking a more concrete shape occurs when we interact at the level of groups. All human and social institutions that help us with evolve our personality and shape our attitudes have a critical role to play in assuring us of the efficacy of values by encouraging the social acceptance of a given attitude.

The family is one such institution that has a bearing on how we think and behave. It has generally been observed that there is limited discussion on such civic issues. Religious and political parties are a lynchpin in organising societies and training their workers about values, norms and the ethos. They resort to all forms of propaganda and indoctrination to sell their manifesto or a certain point of view. But they make little effort to educate their workers. Civic education is missing in the discourse that they so passionately champion. Petty interests trump the overriding considerations that promote the larger good of society.

Another institution that has assumed centre-stage in shaping attitudes and influencing public opinion is the mass media. Given its deep penetration in society and its potential impact in shaping perceptions, the media has emerged as an arena for political battles. In playing the self-appointed role of an educator and an agent of change, the mass media has often been wading in areas that attract public attention and leave a deep imprint on people’s minds in the process.

There is no denying the positive role that the media has played in promoting a culture of openness, dialogue and inclusiveness. However, it has not sufficiently invested in the civic empowerment of the people through focused and targeted programming. While the mainstream media may often be short of space and time to take up such issues, the trend is now slowly but gradually changing for the better with the emergence of local, city-specific channels. But such channels have their limitations. A carefully-designed national narrative on civic engagement and social education appears to be missing in addition to the issue of outreach.

The fourth important institution that we stay in constant interaction with is the community. During such tragedies, the community behaves like a passive entity and people tend to lack the will and motivation to act as the first responder. The resulting damages can be minimised by ensuring greater community involvement and awareness. For this, we need to change the ‘inverted’ or ‘upside-down’ structure of disaster management by creating a strong liaison between the community and institutions responsible for disaster management, such as the NDMA and the various PDMAs. 

In such situations, mobs have often trampled upon the government’s writ by refusing to listen to personnel and organisations mandated by the law to regulate human conduct. This cavalier attitude is at the heart of so many of our social travails. 

The time has come for us to rediscover discipline to run society. The Quaid-e-Azam, our founding father, emphasised the need to adhere to discipline as a guiding principle to organise the polity as well as society. We were a disciplined society, where the presence of a constable – yes a constable – who was armed with a whistle alone could regulate large crowds and control traffic on the roads. The negative trend that was started for political gains and fed for the same ulterior motive has turned people into unruly and defiant mobs. No society can function with this kind of mob mentality.

These tragedies have made it amply clear that it is time we went back to the drawing board and made ourselves self-disciplined, responsible and law-abiding citizens. This will not happen in a day but a beginning needs to be made. We need to understand that there are no shortcuts and blaming the government for our follies will not do.

While the role of a government in effecting a change through policy intervention is well-documented and cannot be negated, there are instances when social movements triggered by NGOs and communities have forced governments to change tack and bring about drastic changes in laws and policies.

The culture of looking up to the government for everything has to change. The community should take greater ownership of the decisions that affect its well-being. This is where the role of our institutions, such as the family, schools, religious and political parties and the media is central, in altering public opinion. Our continued failure on this count is counterproductive and is the major cause of incidents such as the Bahawalpur oil tanker explosion.


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