Lessons to be learnt from the Ashura carnage (09 Jan, 2010)

Last year ended on a tragic high note. Over 40 persons were killed in the Ashura procession’s blast; thousands of shops were burnt in the arson and followed by looting. The response of the government and political parties that followed this black 28/12 is also pathetic. Instead of searching for truth and learning lessons from this gruesome episode, unfortunately a game of political point scoring and finding a scape goat has started.

While preliminary report of the government says that the bomb was planted on the route of the procession in a box for collecting papers that have holy inscriptions which was affixed to a pole, some eye witnesses who lost their family members are not convinced with this finding. They feel that the suicide bombing cannot be ruled out. Initially the government also released the picture of the severed head of a young man and claimed it was that of the suicide bomber. And the rangers were not far behind in giving a medal to the two Jawans who died in the blast for courageously trying to stop the bomber. But then it was found out it was the head of a young volunteer. What happened to the Rangers’ story there was no follow up or should I say it was covered up.

In both the cases whether it was suicide bombing by some sectarian organisation or the bomb was planted, the security lapse charge cannot be washed away. In the suicide case people may have lenient view of the security agencies because there is a perception that such attacks cannot be stopped. So the Rangers and the volunteer who lost their lives get the credit to limit the damage. But if it was a planted bomb then the responsibility falls on the people who supposedly checked and cleared the route. In both cases the lesson of this tragedy is that police and rangers do not have the capacity to secure such a long route in terms of equipment, training and numbers. One retired IG said that the police is too thinly spread and badly equipped. “No Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for managing such difficult security situation and counter the rioting were followed,” he added.

Lesson two of this episode is that the government agencies should not jump to conclusions about the cause of such incidents before they get at least preliminary investigation report. And only one person should be authorized to speak on behalf of each institution otherwise conflicting views given by the government agencies cause confusion and breed misunderstanding.

Lesson three is that all sizeable organisations, whether they are in the private or public sector, should work out on possible crisis scenarios and prepare themselves for all eventualities by conducting regular drills. The handling of a handful of arsonists after the blast and massive damage caused by them shows that the government was not prepared. One affected person said that when asked why they were not taking any action, the Rangers standing close to the market where arsonists were breaking in, said ‘we don’t have such orders.’ The Rangers were right because legally only authorized persons can order to shoot. First lesson is that usually our police and rangers jawans are not provided radios on which they can take orders from their superiors. Second, the so-called command and control center has neither any official who can issue commands nor has the ability to control anything. At best it is a good record keeping center which can provide recordings for investigation purposes.

Now let’s talk about the massive damage caused to the shops, warehouses and offices in this incident. First lesson here is that the government should make it mandatory of these businessmen to get their stocks and properties insured so that in case of any damage the burden does not fall on the tax payers. The insurance companies should also come forward with packages which are affordable for such businesses. Second, the compensation to the affected people should be in proportion to the average of taxes paid by these businesses in the last three years. We all know that most of the shops and warehouses there were that of wholesale dealers, who usually have a large turnover and little tax contribution to the exchequer. Most the business is undocumented and is done in cash. Third, while such business should have some fire fighting equipment of their own as required under law particularly for warehouses, there should be adequate local government facilities in each locality so that it can be mobilized quickly.

In each city the government should also have a crisis management team, which undertakes a drill every six months on probable scenarios. This team should have a crisis control center with all the necessary communication equipment. The team should be able to get to the crisis control center quickly and then take a coordinated approach. The command & control center established by the city government in Karachi can then be effectively utilised by this high-level team which is authorized to take control and issue command.

All this would be only possible if all the stakeholders of the city sit together and discuss the future crisis management strategy, evolve the future implementation plan and roll-on to the future. The way things are in Pakistan 28/12 Black Monday is unfortunately not the last attack by the barbarians at our door, there are many more to come across the country. For heavens sake get prepared on scientific lines and stop scoring points on each other and shifting blame while sitting over hundreds of dead bodies littered in the killing fields of Pakistan. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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