MURREE DEBACLE – WILL WE EVER LEARN?

STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

Growing up in Abbottabad in the sixties we were always a bit jealous of Murree. Both were tourist destinations. During summer many families would visit to escape the heat. Abbottabad is a valley surrounded by mountains having a much larger footprint and open areas than Murree. Murree is a small plateau on a mountaintop with little room to grow. It has been a magnet for tourists who would gravitate onto the Mall Road with the attending restaurants and cafes. It had far more glamour which made us envious.
After moving to Lyallpur aka Faisalabad as a teenager; the highpoint of our summer vacations used to be a trip to Murree in the company of friends. Our friend, Masood Hashmi’s father was the VC of Agricultural University. Using his connections, we would wiggle a booking in a rest house for a few days and come away with great memories. On a few occasions we visited during winters to witness much milder snowfalls. Murree in those days was far less congested and much friendlier.
All that started to change in the eighties. With increasing population, upward mobility of the middle and working class fueled by overseas remittances, new construction exploded in Murree. It continued over the next three decades turning beautiful serene surroundings into an urban jungle. Murree sits in the middle of a tectonic fault line. The British were cautious in managing building loads. They encouraged wooden structures which are lighter. It had to be either that or structures built with specifications of earthquake resistant re-enforcements.
None of that was enforced due to a combination of greedy developers, corrupt bureaucracy, and self serving leadership. Tall structures have been built without catering to engineering requirements. Murree is a powder keg in case of any serious earthquake that will dwarf the recent tragedy.
I have written quite extensively on the impacts of global warming and resultant changes in severity of weather patterns. Tree cover in Northern Areas has been decimated leading to increased flooding. Summers are hotter and winters much colder with increased snowfalls. The realities are harsh; our preparations are weak and we have an exuberant, fun loving and ill informed population. These are the underlying realities that resulted in a loss of lives due to hyperthermia or carbon monoxide poisoning.
The drama started last weekend. The metrological department predicted heavy snowfall in Murree. That was enough to trigger the appetite of an entertainment starved nation to pack their bags and head for the hills. Based on information available anywhere between a 100,000 to a 150,000 vehicles started their crawl towards the hills. Using the lower number of cars with 4 or five occupants each; close to half a million folks made a move within hours to a location totally incapable of managing such numbers.
According to various reports, Murree has a capacity of 4,000 to maximum 10,000 parking spots. It is attempting to fit a size 10 foot into a size 3 shoe! It will either tear the shoe or hurt the foot. Drawing on experience gained in my travels, how do other countries manage desirable tourist destinations? In a functional governance system capable of proactive planning, studies are done to determine absorption capacity of the destinations. Based on that, a plan is in place to regulate access through administrative controls and creating public awareness to prepare for any eventualities.
It is evident that no such systems exist and our management is incompetent. What was the result? Traffic jams, cars stuck in snow, unprepared tourists with no one in charge. It was the heaviest snowfall in decades totaling 4 feet. Those stuck around Kuldana and Barain could not move, and ended up spending the night in their vehicles. 22 unfortunate occupants chose to leave their engines running to use car heaters. They were obviously unaware that they had set themselves up for poisoning through carbon monoxide as their car exhausts got blocked by the snowfall. Tragic. Those who made it to Murree were gouged by the exploiting hotel owners fleecing the hapless tourists to their hearts content.
A bigger tragedy was the complete inaction by the Punjab Government before, during or after the debacle. Usman Buzdar, a gift of God visible only to PM IK, after boasting about the high volume of cars, went into paralysis. After being coaxed, he showered his benevolence by making a tour of the area in a helicopter. A government that is promoting tourism as one of its main plank bombed this one. Pakistanis are suckers for pain so they will keep coming back. What about the discerning foreign tourists? The blame game has commenced. Whoever is responsible is immaterial; the fact is that we have larger issues to contend with.
We need to reboot our systems. In our prevalent mayhem termed as parliamentary democracy, we have 3 main contenders. The two previous incumbents devastated our economy and butchered our system. PM IK is hindered by his paper thin majority and incompetence of his team. It is time to think outside the box. We need to go past this slavish mentality to carry on British Raj legacy. We need a system that suits our realities on ground. We require a no-nonsense powerhouse that can bring the looters and mafias to their heels. We need justice and a just society to turn our fortunes around. That is our only hope.

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