The real culprit in the Murree tragedy | By Mehr Jan

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Is there any hope left?

Perhaps the devastating Murree incident will linger on indefinitely. Perhaps it has shifted the paradigms to the extent at which chaos can unfold in Pakistan.

It was one of our readily accessible vacation spots. A drive from the capital, the mountain resort town falling under the Galyat region, Murree served as an escape route, allowing visitors to forget their weekly mounts of work and mundane existence to let out a breather and enjoy nature at its finest.

Ironically it was this love to witness nature in its sheer blankets of cold that led to more than 20 deaths as visitors found themselves trapped in a major snowstorm on January 7th. The horrifying tragedy has been attaining not just national but global glare as to what went wrong? Who was at fault and who is to be held accountable?

A place synonymous to good times and bliss suddenly has tones of fear and unpredictability attached to it. That fateful night between Jan 7 and Jan 8 has unveiled snow in a different avatar as being deadly and unforgiving. But here’s the thing- climate tends to be unpredictable but how did the government’s negligence to take calculated control not come until the tragedy struck?

It is now, a week later that the National Highways and Motorways Police (NH&MP) continues its ban on entry into Murree for yet another six days. This was in accordance with the forecast of the meteorological department, which had earlier predicted heavy snowfall at the scenic spot. But why did the authorities fail to impose this action sooner?

The Islamabad High Court has held the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) responsible for the incident on the basis that officials failed to set preventive and responsive measures despite major meteorological warnings. It is reported that on January 7, Murree received 6 feet of snow and more than 13,000 cars entered when the region is only accustomed to cater to 4000 cars due to limited parking space. While it was a snowstorm, a natural disaster which led to the crisis, there is no denying that the fatalities have human error to blame as well.

For years, Murree has been hosting a surge of visitors- be it any season of the year, the popularity of this historical location is undeniable. Yet it was this year that the situation completely tumbled out of control. A region reflecting colonial heritage with amazing hotels, churches and schools spread across its ridge and slopes, the government needs to tie the loose ends to realize how Murree is our gold mine when it comes to boosting tourism in the country. This incident has definitely set us 50 years back, projecting this breathtaking location in the negative limelight for social media to trend. But looking and giving credit to Pakistan as being a resilient nation, there is still time to pick up the pieces and not let Murree doom into disintegration.

It is of utmost importance that a major and independent authority body, much like the revoked Murree Development Authority, come into the forefront to combat such a crisis in a duly and effective manner. Having so will also tackle the concerns that stem from how locals were looting and adapting unfair measures to cash money from this crisis. Educational campaigns and proper monitoring with strict regulations will ensure that misconduct is punished. This will allow reports like a local who was allegedly creating artificial obstructions to extort money or hotels charging unfair and steep rates of 50k- 70k for stranded tourists, to be kept under a watchful eye. Along with that, the government should develop large parking plazas in safe zones, allowing a steady commute for day visitors.

While it is important to mention that the Punjab Chief Minister has highlighted certain remedial measures as well as ‘compensation’ for the families of victims, it is more of a constant effort which needs a commitment of the highest regard. It is truly a sensitive matter as the world watches how the country is willing to accept its shortcomings and assert change to save the tourism sector.

—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.

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