The baton of blame

January 16, 2022

The tragedy in Murree continues to echo in the public consciousness

The baton of blame

The tragic events in Murree were more than an administrative disaster. Like any disaster, there was a gendered side to the events that remained largely unreported.

“It is wrong to call such a disaster ‘natural.’ There is a human induced aspect to it as well. A natural hazard turns into a disaster due to a lack of preparedness and inequalities in rescue and response. Women always suffer disproportionately during disasters as they are not involved in decision-making at policy level and the system ignores their needs,” Vidiya Rehman Rana, senior communications manager at Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, Bangkok, tells The News on Sunday.

Social and mainstream media are crammed with footage and comments regarding what happened in Murree all week. Men of different age groups and backgrounds have been making these videos, with hardly one or two videos featuring the problems faced by women.

Prof Dr Muhammad Zaman, founding chairman of the Department of Sociology at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), says that both women and men were trapped in Murree. “The problems men and women face in a similar situation are not similar,” he says. “Take, the restrooms, for example. Men can answer the call of nature in the open. Women cannot. This means that the misery in Murree was more intense for women. But we do not report that.”

Asked if men are insensitive to women’s needs, Vidiya Rana says, “No, they are somewhat unaware. I remember I used to roll down my car windows a little when the heater was on. There might be women in Murree who might have asked their men to take this simple precaution. Their voice might have gone unheard.”

“There is a difference in the needs of men and women. This difference becomes dangerous during man-made disasters,” she says.

“It’s not just sanitation pads and restrooms; women also need food and warm clothes,” she says. “We do not go into the debate deliberately. Inequality is a norm and. In times of disaster, this creates an even bigger disparity,” she says.

Talking about the level of preparedness, she says, “We live in a digital age so that monitoring the weather is easy. It should have been easy to make assessments for the needs of those trapped in snow or any other weather phenomenon. All over the world, governments and non-government institutions do it using satellite images.”

“Why did those responsible not do it for Murree?” she asks.

“The residents of Murree were not responsible for the rescue operation, the government was,” she says. “Odd acts of unkindness should not be generalised to stigmatise an entire city,” she adds.

Murree falls under the Rawalpindi division. The number of vehicles entering Murree was known. The Met Office had forecast bad weather and a record snowfall. Keeping an eye on the situation and concluding that it could turn dangerous, the Islamabad administration stopped all vehicular movement to Murree on January 7.

However, government leaders including Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain had been promoting tens of thousands of vehicles entering Murree as an indicator of general prosperity and evidence that the government’s pro-tourism policy was working. Egged on by such encouragement, more people turned to Murree. This defeated the desperate attempts by traffic police to keep the roads free of traffic jams until everything crashed on Friday.

“We live in the digital age where monitoring the weather is easy. It should have been easy to make assessments for the needs of those trapped in snow or any other weather phenomenon. All over the world, governments and non-government institutions do this using satellite images.

By the time the Islamabad administration stopped vehicles going to Murree, it was too late. Inaction by the Rawalpindi administration resulted in a higher influx of vehicles from KP and Kashmir. The worst happened on Saturday night, when several people died in their cars.

“More than 20 people have died,” Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat reported. “They did not freeze to death. Keeping car heaters on with no exhaust resulted in carbon monoxide poisoning. The family of an Islamabad Police officer was among them. These lives could have been saved,” he lamented.

Punjab chief commissioner has been frantically tweeting about the operation to clear roads. The chief commissioner, the chief secretary, the tourism and many more high ranking officers were reduced to looking after the small city and failed. An inquiry committee has been formed and Chief Minister Usman Buzdar promised to pay compensation for the victims and bring those responsible to justice. Since high ranking officers from the province comprise the inquiry committee, how thorough the investigation will be, and who will take the blame is anybody’s guess. Junior officers say they are already hard-pressed to maintain protocol for the political bigwigs frequenting Murree.

“Besides the residents of Murree, expect the junior officers to be castigated,” Jawad Shaukat Abbasi, a local YouTuber says.

“After Lahore, Murree has the highest number of hotels in the Punjab. Their number has exceeded 500. Over the last three years, hotels and restaurants have seen unprecedented construction. These hotels are causing serious damage to the environment and the local community,” he says.

Speaking about the community response, he says: “Many locals were snowbound themselves. Some did their best to help. Murree has a mix of people, same as any other city. There are good and bad people everywhere,” he says.

“People should also realise that if tens of thousands of vehicles hit Murree Expressway from the Punjab, not all of those are coming to Murree. Many are going to Kashmir or the KP,” he says.

Abbasi says providing water plants, restrooms and facilities at public points in Murree, is the government’s responsibility. Especially so, since its neighbour, Islamabad, has functional amenities. “These facilities are imperative given the massive number of tourists that visit Murree round the clock,” he says.

The large number of hotels in Murree have had a huge negative impact on the local community, leading to social problems and water shortages. Instead of regulating development to preserve its scenic beauty, the government has been promoting the construction of hotels.

Hotel owners have a different view. In a press conference at National Press Club in Islamabad their representatives said the facilities of the Pakistan Army in Murree should have been used to rescue the stranded tourists. The ISPR has since reported that army personnel have been carrying out rescue operations.

Opposition parties have accused the government of being unresponsive and insensitive to human tragedy. The prime minister has observed that the weather was harsh. He has also said that the administration was not prepared for the large number of tourists coming to Murree.

The writer teaches development support communication at   International Islamic University Islamabad.  Twitter:  @HassanShehzadZ

Email:  Hassan.shehzad

The baton of blame