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EDITORIAL: Wind tests the strength of grass, and so did the snowfall in Murree last week that buried 23 precious lives alive. They had gone to the hill station to enjoy the season’s first snowfall, but everything that could go wrong went wrong — a calamitous weather forecast was ignored, concerned authorities failed to act as they should have and the local hoteliers literally looted the storm-battered tourists.

The grass uprooted by the wind. A festival was turned into a profoundly grim tragedy. But at long last, there is a stir in the higher echelons of power. Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar reached Murree where he announced some remedial measures and a fist of ‘rewards’ for the people and ‘compensation’ for the families of victims.

He also set up a bureaucratic committee to find out what went wrong and why. What else the government would do; that may be great but never for the families who lost their near and dear ones in the snowstorm. It is important to note that the Met office had issued timely warnings of the looming snowstorm, but there was nothing at hand to keep the roads clear of snow, reach out to the beleaguered tourists and rescue them. This profound tragedy has, therefore, given birth to some very pertinent questions, to say the least.

Is it true that the local administration and bureaucracy learnt of the deaths in the stranded cars from social media only? Second, why such a large number of vehicles were allowed to arrive in Murree and adjoining areas while there was every possibility that there would be no place to park them and they would cause traffic jams and road blockades.

Since these tourist attractions are located on crests of hills, unlike in the Northern Areas where such tourist destinations are perched on a high altitude plateau, the roads in there are not wide enough to accommodate parking. But nearly 160,000 vehicles were allowed to enter Murree against its parking capacity of about 3,500 vehicles. Of course, the toll plazas on both the main roads to the hill station minted a lot of money. Third, media reports and eyewitness accounts claim that the local hoteliers exploited the tourists’ dilemma up to the hilt by excessively overcharging them. Of course Nature is unforgiving; that it should also cast humans in that role is indeed very tragic.

This was not the first severe snowstorm in Murree, nor will it be the last. But what happened last week is first of its kind. Authorities and people, therefore, are expected to learn some lesson from it to make certain that it does not happen again. Giving Murree the status of a district is good. What can also be termed ‘good’ is that the officers who failed to rise to the occasion and help save 23 lives should be identified and punished severely.

But it is action on the ground that is more earnestly warranted: it comprises three things. One, the flow of traffic to Murree and Galiyat both from Punjab and KP should be kept under stiff watch and control. Two, the local authorities should have adequate road-clearing machines, prompt rescue services and post-accident setups. Isn’t it a biblical predicament that a stranded passenger had to reach his relatives in Islamabad by phone and ask for a crane that should pull out his vehicle? Three, that the hill station hospitality is a seasonal business and the hotel managements know what to ask as rents for rooms is a fact. But the kind of rent some hotels sought from the beleaguered tourists was nothing but sheer extortion.

The concerned authorities should ensure that the tourists’ inability to sleep in the open is not exploited. They should fix the rates and open an online complaint centre. If Pakistan is to become a destination for world tourists, it shall have to make sure that what happened in Murree last week won’t happen again, cannot happen again.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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