The year 2022 started with a horrific tragedy in Murree, where thousands of tourists got trapped in a snowstorm. At least 23 people, including 10 children, died inside their vehicles due to extreme cold exposure or asphyxiation as a result of inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles. Despite early warnings of bad weather, the Rawalpindi district administration failed to take measures to avert the tragedy.
According to news reports, the Pakistan Metrological Department had issued an alert on January 5, warning of heavy snowfall that could potentially cause roadblocks from January 6-9. Unfortunately, the district administration and the national and provincial disaster management bodies did not take the weather alert seriously in spite of the expected tourist inflow of tourists into Murree from various entry points over the weekend.
Murree remains the most popular destination for tourists from all over the country all around the year with a spike in tourist numbers during the peak season in summer, public holidays and snowfall in winter. It’s a weekend getaway for residents of the nearby twin cities of Islamabad-Rawalpindi. It is close to the heart of PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, who held important meetings at the hill station during his tenure as prime minister and paid particular attention to its development.
Under the able leadership of Punjab’s former Chief Minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif, it was customary for PML-N’s member of the Punjab Assembly from PP1 Late Raja Ashfaq Sarwar to prepare a plan together with civil bureaucracy, local administration, hotel industry representatives and the local people well before the snowfall started. Hence, there has never been a single report of death or injury as a result of traffic jams in Murree in past years.
Official sources report that 32,000 vehicles had entered and 22,460 left Murree on 7 January, while the rest of around 10,000 vehicles got stranded in the snowstorm. Distressing images of trapped families, unconscious or dead children and adults in snowbound cars flashed on TV screens and widely circulated on social media. It was only after the deaths of stranded tourists started making rounds that the government machinery came into action. It was not a matter of lack of capacity. The district administration is fully capable and has successfully handled such situations in the past. It was a matter of fore-thought, advance planning and deploying that capacity at the right time, which was not done this year.
First, the weather alert was not taken seriously by the district administration and no plan was put in place to manage the traffic flow and rescue trapped people. Second, no travel advisory was issued by relevant authorities for tourists in view of the impending snowstorm. Third, snowploughs that clear the snow every year, could not be deployed effectively because 20 out of 29 snowploughs were parked at the same spot. Fourth, no component of the district administrative machinery made efforts to reach out to rescue the stranded tourists. Local people offered shelter and food to trapped people when no government functionary showed up.
To make things worse, the local hotel industry jacked up their prices instead of facilitating their hapless guests in freezing cold weather. Reportedly, local hotels with a price range of Rs 6,000-10,000 for a room per night charged as high as Rs 70,000 per night from distressed customers. The price of a cup of tea that you can buy for Rs 70 was sold at Rs 700. There was no one to check the hotel owners and facilitate customers.
While Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to blame the tragedy on victims for rushing to Murree without checking the weather, PML-N leaders including Mian Shehbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shehbaz expressed grief at the loss and issued strong-worded statements condemning government negligence.
In response to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif tweeted, “Imran Khan has made victim blaming the governing philosophy of his otherwise directionless government. There is always someone ‘responsible’ for whatever goes wrong. A country of 220m people is being run by those whose default response is to shirk responsibility of their actions.”
Maryam Nawaz stated in her tweet, “I have NEVER seen such chaos, apathy & incompetence & most importantly a government that has nothing to do with the misery of people. What’s most shocking though is not only the dismissive attitude but the contempt & scorn they pour on the victims.” Leader of the Opposition in Punjab Assembly Hamza Shehbaz also expressed his grief at the unnecessary loss and requisitioned a special session of the assembly to discuss the Murree incident.
Given the widespread outrage at the absurd loss of at least 23 precious lives due to government apathy, the Punjab Government had no choice but to come clean and accept responsibility for its failure. The inquiry committee constituted by Punjab’s Chief Minister Usman Buzdar concluded in its report that the tragedy happened due to “gross negligence, lack of coordination and team work as well as risk assessment” by the government machinery. CM Buzdar went on to suspend the entire chain of district command including Rawalpindi Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, Murree Assistant Commissioner, Rawalpindi City Police Officer and Murree Assistant Superintendent of Police.
The CM has announced that disciplinary action would be taken against these officials, but it is unlikely that high ranking officials would face punishment for dereliction of duty. If past is any guide, as soon as the dust settles, it will be business as usual. At most, a few low-ranking officials will be made a scapegoat. Moreover, no action that the government takes now can bring back the deceased tourists.
International news headlines of tourist deaths in a snowstorm did not help Pakistan’s aspirations of becoming a tourism hub. It is a humbling moment for the Pakistan Tehrik-e- Insaf government that espoused the promotion of tourism as a cardinal principle of Pakistan’s development. A couple of days before disaster struck, a government minister lauded the arrival of 100,000 cars in Murree as a sign of increased tourism, not realizing that the unchecked influx would catch his government unprepared. It is time the government accepted it is incapable of governing the country.