Thursday May 19, 2022

Inquiry report belies propaganda against locals in Murree tragedy

January 21, 2022
Inquiry report belies propaganda against locals in Murree tragedy

ISLAMABAD: The widespread propaganda unleashed against locals after the Murree tragedy has been found to be exaggerated by the inquiry committee. On the contrary, “The committee did learn about selfless acts of support by local individuals and hotels.”

The report added, “Some of the stranded tourists complained about over-charging for food items and bus/ taxi fares. On the balance, the incidents of exploitation by the local population were over-exaggerated.”

The inquiry report, which was presented to the chief minister Punjab on Wednesday, held the administration responsible for the tragedy. According to the report, “Coordination meetings were held by the DC Rawalpindi and AC Murree with the Hotel Association to provide emergency accommodation. The vice president of the Hotel Association also confirmed that meetings were held with the local administration of Murree to facilitate the tourists. However, once the blizzard started, there is limited evidence that the administration coordinated with hotels to move tourists to safety. Furthermore, the committee could not find any SOPs on how the service and support would be obtained from the hotels and what would be the level of support i.e. number of free rooms. The committee did learn about selfless acts of support by local individuals and hotels. At the same time, some of the stranded tourists complained about over-charging of food items and bus/ taxi fares. On the balance, the incidents of exploitation by the local population were over-exaggerated.”

The report said that the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD)’s warning of heavy snowfall in Murree from January 6 to 9, 2022, and its implications for the traffic were unambiguous while NDMA’s letter dated January 5, 2022 contained clear instructions to divert traffic and detour traffic to save waiting areas. It is noted these warnings were sent to DG PDMA only in Punjab on January 5, 2022. Incidentally, the position of DG PDMA was vacant because the previous DG had relinquished charge on January 3, 2022. Nevertheless, PMD’s warning was shared on the “PDMA Punjab Info Desk” WhatsApp group which included both the Commissioner Rawalpindi & DC Rawalpindi.

The report said that NDMA’s warning communicated to the PDMA control room WhatsApp number was not even opened by the Director PDMA till January 18, 2022. The committee examined the twitter accounts, websites and Facebook pages of DC Rawalpindi, Rawalpindi Police, Rawalpindi Traffic Police, PDMA and NHA. In the context of the specific weather advisory dated January 5, 2022, no warning was issued to citizens not to travel to Murree by any of the entities prior to January 7, 2022. The PDMA also did not post a travel advisory dated January 5, 2022 either on its website or twitter account.

The performance of the police was unsatisfactory especially its inability to regulate traffic or take corrective steps keeping in view the unruly conduct of tourists and exorbitant influx of vehicles and visitors. The sluggish decision making and lethargic implementation caused irreparable delay in traffic management and the safe exit of tourists from Murree.

The report said that the C&W Department has two officers – an XEN & SDO- who are responsible specifically for snow clearance in Murree. Apart from those, the XEN Highway is responsible for the upkeep of the roads. Their contingency plan did not articulate names of operators, salt/ diesel availability, coordination mechanism with other departments and deployment of machinery. Although C&W officers claim adequate provisions were made for POL, there is however evidence that some operators asked for fuel from some establishments including the Pearl Continental Hotel. Poor planning and delayed decision making led to the entrapment of the machinery/ equipment in traffic rendering the snow clearance operation ineffective, compounding the situation.

According to the report, the Punjab Emergency Services Department (Rescue1122) has a strong footprint in Murree. The Department prepared a contingency plan and circulated it on November 22, 2021. It was able to deploy eight fully-equipped ambulances along with 3 PTS ambulances. However, one of the most serious complaints against the staff was that they refused to go out into the snow further down the road towards Barrian from Kuldana roundabout to rescue trapped people. Rescue 1122 was also tasked to bring in a rescue crane but it was not arranged even though it was recorded in the minutes of a meeting held by the Station Commander and AC Murree.

The inquiry revealed that during the blizzard, the entire administrative, rescue and support machinery made limited attempts to rescue stranded tourists. At most, support was provided near the main roundabouts or close to main roads with shops & hotels. Forest Department and IESCO officials were absent except one or two positions during the extreme blizzard to remove fallen trees and electric poles respectively. Their absence made the situation worse during the blizzard. The AC & ASP who were expected to take a multi-pronged approach were seen pushing cars which should have been done by wardens.

According to the report, the key lapses include the following:

a. Failure of risk assessment and the inadequate transmission of warning to the concerned officials through right channels and to the right quarters.

b. Lack of leadership at all levels – divisional, district and tehsil-- by the administration which was reflected in poor planning, skewed risk assessment and sub-optimal implementation.

c. Failure to set up a proper control room at the district level in Murree with representatives from all the relevant federal and provincial entities.

d. Almost no follow-up to ensure the deployment of assets such as snow removal machinery and necessary verifications of prior actions. The reliance was placed entirely on verbal confirmations.

e. Lack of coordination among the departments to work in a unified manner to help the stranded tourists.

The inquiry report held 15 officers responsible for the mess and recommended the following for Murree:

i. Murree may be upgraded to the status of a district.

ii. Automated entry-exit points be established for counting entry and exit of vehicles from Murree on a real-time basis. This may be connected with a “Visit Murree” application that can issue entry permits or tickets to tourists based on the absorption capacity of local infrastructure.

iii. A comprehensive master-plan of Murree may be prepared and implemented for the future development and promotion of Murree as a tourism destination of choice.

iv. Strict building code regulations should be developed and implemented, land use control should be enforced strictly and illegal buildings & structures must be demolished forthwith

v. A modern early warning system may be established with the PMD in Murree to warn officials, tourists, and travellers.

vi. Department of Tourist Services may be strengthened by appropriate human and physical resources. The regulatory framework for various tourist and allied services may be developed and implemented.

vii. Official use of WhatsApp, especially for transmission of official documents and information, be discouraged in line with federal government instructions and policies.

viii. A joint management committee under the co-convenorship of the Deputy Commissioner and Station Commander, Pakistan Army may be set up for Murree to implement upgradation and the master plan.

ix. Safe city infrastructure may be established in Murree.

x. All snow clearing management services be equipped with modern gadgetry, snow-borne equipment and appropriate gear.