Punjab chief minister vows to punish all culprits responsible and announces Rs. 17.6 million in compensation for families of victims
The Punjab government on Sunday formed a five-member committee to probe the causes and lapses of governance that facilitated the conditions that resulted in the deaths of at least 22 tourists that were stranded in their vehicles after a snowstorm struck Murree last week.
According to a notification issued by the provincial government, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Zafar Nasrullah would serve as the convener of the committee that would include secretaries Ali Sarfaraz and Asad Gilani, as well as Assistant Inspector General of Police Farooq Mazhar as its members.
Per the notification, the committee has been tasked with determining which government departments were responsible for the crisis that struck hill station Murree over the weekend as well as assessing the measures taken to curb the surge of visitors and vehicles that the government was hailing as evidence of “economic prosperity” just last week.
The committee would also examine what, if any, precautionary measures were taken by the local administration in light of the weather advisory issued by the Met Office, and determine whether sufficient warning was provided to dissuade people from traveling to the area for tourism ahead of an ‘unprecedented’ snowstorm.
The committee’s Terms of Reference also call for it to probe the traffic control measures taken during the snowstorm, as well as any safety measures that were implemented. Per the notification, the committee would submit its findings to the provincial government within seven days.
Rawalpindi Commissioner Syed Gulzar Hussain Shah, in a statement, said more than 8,000 stranded tourists and 3,000-4,000 vehicles had already been evacuated from the snow-hit region. He said arrangements had also been made to provide fuel to stranded travelers.
Separately, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced that all main arteries of Murree had been cleared of snow, including the Kuldana-Barian Road where most of the casualties occurred. It said Army-run relief camps and medical stations were operating in the area, and police and Army transport was helping shift trapped tourists from Murree to Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
According to an initial report into the tragedy that was presented to Chief Minister Usman Buzdar on Sunday, a majority of the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, as the travelers sought to remain warm while trapped in their vehicles. It said that four feet of snow had fallen on Murree on Jan. 7—a day prior to the tragedy. Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, it said, 162,000 vehicles had entered the hill station, far in excess of its infrastructural capacity, adding that the collapse of trees at 16 different points had increased the road blockages.
Announcing Rs. 17.6 million in financial assistance for the families of the deceased, Buzdar stressed that this was in no way any “substitute for human life.” Expressing sympathies with the bereaved families, he said the Punjab government shares in their sorrow and vowed to ensure that the entry of vehicles and tourists in Murree would be carefully controlled in future. “Vehicles and tourists exceeding the specified limit would not be allowed to enter Murree,” he said and directed authorities to take strict action against any hotels reportedly overcharging stranded tourists, forcing many to spend the night in their vehicles.
In a statement, the chief minister also announced the measures the government was taking to establish “permanent solutions” to the issues posed by a large influx of tourists to Murree. Vowing that “indiscriminate action” would be taken against anyone found negligent in their duties, he said it had also been decided “in principle” to give Murree the status of a district. “We will immediately appoint officers of the ranks of superintendent of police and additional deputy commissioner in Murree,” he said, adding that two new police stations would be established in the city.
To boost parking availability, he said, two new parking plazas would be constructed at Sunny Bank and Jhika Gali, and a shuttle service would be run between these points. He said local Rescue 1122 staff would also be provided trail bikes and wireless communication systems.