The dead don’t speak. Nor might they ever get the justice they rightfully deserve. For all sense and purpose, the Keamari gas mystery may remain a mystery with inquiry commission’s report (if indeed the matter scales up to that level) likely to be marked classified, as has been the case with some other incidents in the past.
At the time of writing this note, there was no conclusive report about the causes of death. Conjectures, pre-mature analysis, mudslinging, conspiracy theories aplenty; but nothing concrete to help provide justice to the dead or to prevent such incidents in the future. The incident, however, does put a few things under spotlight a little more conclusively – regardless of whatever may be the cause of these deaths.
First, is the jurisdictional issue. Who is supposed to lead such investigations - investigations that are both scientific and possibly criminal? Should it be the city government, provincial government, the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), which is alleged to be the source of the problem, or Pakistan Navy, or the Ministry of Ports and Shipping. There is lack of clarity, and efficient coordination mechanism that needs to be fixed pronto.
A week after the first reported incident, final report of Pakistan Navy’s lab is awaited; so is the post-mortem report of two of the dead bodies. Meanwhile, if some attributed the cause of death to bio-chemical warfare, others attributed it to fumigation of methyl bromide, whereas International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) is inclined to believe that the cause is soybean dust. These may be classified into conspiracy theories, conjectures, pre-mature analysis resulting into allegations across interest groups.
Second, is the media hype. Consider the following statement made by the ICCBS: “The symptoms due to exposure to soybean dust (aeroallergens) may be considered a possible cause”. Nowhere in ICCBS’s statement does it categorically state soybean dust as the cause of death.
Yet, ignoring the ‘may be’ part of ICCBS’s statement, some sections of electronic media hyped it to the extent that it made soybean dust appear as the only cause of death. Such hype should have been avoided because Pakistan’s history of economy management is replete with examples where regulators use a hammer when only a rap on the knuckles is all that’s needed.
The All Pakistan Solvent Extractors Association (APSEA) denies soybean theory on account of various factors, some of which can be ascertained by investigators without the need of a long-haul inquiry commission of sorts. For instance, whether the first patient was hospitalized before Hercules, the soybean vessel in question, began its discharge.
BR Research is not a scientific body nor privy to the findings of the scientific and other investigation being carried out. Indeed, if all scientific evidence points to soybean as the culprit then caution – along with an open debate and discussion - is advised before taking any action; government action should not strangulate the industry. This is not a capitalistic cry to protect the interests of APSEA or of shipping agents, but a call for commonsense because soybean is an important part of Pakistan’s food chain.
Soybean as a commodity may not be a part of public imagination, but the commodity is being imported for many years now. Last year, its imports crossed $900 million for about 2.2 million tons of cargo. Being the most efficient feed for poultry that has made poultry growth possible in this country, soybean imports feeds into the poultry industry. Without it, poultry industry would end up in a major crisis, leading to excessive inflation in the price of chicken, and eggs. That’s something the people of Pakistan cannot afford. Nor can the government, given its already fragile political capital eroded by high inflation.
Third, is the issue of poor governance and planning for ports and shipping industry. There is a reason why Hercules is being sent to FAP Terminal at Port Qasim: FAP Terminal has proper closed handling facility with dust suction pumps that meets international standards set for discharge and handling of soybean and other clean bulk cargo. In contrast, the KPT does not have such a facility, which is why soybean cargo is directly discharged on the trucks.
This begs the question why is a commodity that poses asthma risks allowed to be discharged in absence of a proper closed facility as is available at Port Qasim? It does not matter if soybean dust has not caused these deaths. Nor does it matter if soybean dust has not ever aggravated asthma among people working at KPT or living in settlements nearby. When a certain item can potentially cause harm, and when standards exist for its safe handling, then there is no reason why risk-prone facilities or processes (such as open handling of soybean at KPT) are allowed.
The issue of port mismanagement stems from the fact that APSEA and other stakeholders had been requesting the KPT since 2016 to set up an FAP-styled terminal which would increase the discharge rate and the handling would be much safer. But it was only last year that the KPT finally issued a tender inviting prequalification application to design, build, operate and transfer a clean bulk cargo terminal under public private partnership mode.
Hope reason prevails on all accounts!