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Bahawalpur tanker blast- a national tragedy… but why?

At least 149 people, including women and children, burnt alive and scored injured after a crashed tanker exploded near Bhawalpur when residents from a nearby village were busy filling their buckets with fuel gushing through the tanker on Sunday, a day before Eid.

In a matter of seconds, the happiness of getting few litres of free fuel turned into terror. The images of charred bodies of the ill-fated souls stunted every beholder and the accident was termed as a national tragedy.

But is it a tragedy or an act of sheer negligence on part of Tanker driver, the poor people, who risked their lives for a bucket of fuel, the lukewarm and casual response of the concerned authorities who failed to keep these people away from the dangerous area or the government who fails to unshackle the masses from menace of poverty?

We have seen many such accidents or national tragedies but hardly learn from any.Two years back, on the early morning of January 2015, an oil tanker speeding in the wrong direction crashed into a crowded passenger en route from Karachi to Shikarpur in Sindh province. The bus caught fire just after the accident and 57 people including women and children were killed. Some of whom were charred beyond recognition. Tanker driver and dilapidated road were held responsible for the accident. It was the second major fatal crash in Sindh province in less than three months as around 59 people, including 17 women and 18 children were killed on the spot in November 2014 when a bus collided with a truck loaded with coal near Khairpur.  A ‘deep ditch’ on the road and bad driving were termed as a cause of the accident.

Collisions of oil tankers have become a normal thing on our roads as media continuously report such accidents but our so-called ‘concerned authorities’ hardly pay any heed unless any big incident occurs to wake them from their slumber. Just a few months back in March 2017, an oil tanker collided with Shalimar Express passenger train leading to a fire explosion killing two and injuring many.

But Bahawalpur Tanker blast is different because precious lives could have been saved, had the concerned authorities responded quickly and effectively and had forced out the people from the danger zone. The death toll could have been reduced had there been any burn facilities in the area.

Pakistan is not a rich country and whenever any oil tanker turns turtle, people in the vicinity reach the place carrying pots to fetch the ‘free’ fuel or oil, hardly giving a thought to any mishap in the face of the eruption of fire or explosion. In March 2016, a tanker filled with cooking oil turned turtle in Rohri, Sindh area on national highway and locals flocked the site to fill their utensils but no police or administrative representatives reached the site to at least warn these people of the mishap and fortunately, nothing happened.

Similarly, in March 2015, a tanker carrying 40,000 litre of oil overturned at Gujranwala Road and local residents reached there and started filling their bottles and tubs with oil. When rescue teams reached there and they opted to mix water in the spilt oil to any chance of accident and yet again people avoided any tragedy.

In the case of Bahawalpur Tanker accident same negligence was repeated by the police and other concerned authorities who took the accident as a routine matter and failed to pay heed to a possible mishap that resulted in the irreparable loss and grief just a day after the nation saw the revisit of terrorist attacks in Quetta and Parachannar. .

South Punjab is neglected area in terms of education, health and other basic facilities. The area mostly comprises poor families who can hardly afford their daily meal.  In Bahawalpur incident, the news of ‘free fuel’ lead the poor souls to the site of the accident where they paid the heaviest cost by losing their lives.

Chief Minister Punjab has ordered an inquiry of the incident and announced a monetary package for the deceased and injured but the question who will be held responsible for the poverty of those poor people who were compelled to risk their lives for few litres of oil?

The government is busy in making new roads and motorways but poverty still remains the biggest problem of this nation.  People die with curable diseases as the lack access to medical facilities while other die because they can get immediate treatment after road or burn accidents.

This is also the right time to assess the physical and mental health of oil tankers and truck drivers apart from the fitness of their vehicles. Most of these accidents occur early in the morning when drivers are mostly overpowered by fatigue and sleep.

Every tragedy is a reminder for the authorities and the people to take some measures to avoid such incidents in the future but will we ever learn?

Ayaz Mahmood Khan