WASHINGTON DC, July 25, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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A scene after the latest train disaster in Pakistan

An Angry Column: 'We are All Dead Inside'

By Masood Hasan

LAHORE, July 25: The recent train disaster that has already killed 135 innocent people and maimed and injured hundreds others is another sorry chapter in our sorry history. Those who died can be faulted for having chosen to travel by the archaic and disorderly Pakistan rail network that is as reliable as quicksand.

What this has once again proven is that those in authority are compulsive liars and have absolutely no moral scruples when it comes to saving their own hides. Integrity, a commodity in perpetual and increasingly short supply, enjoys the status of a full-blown famine in their perk-infested lives.

The Minister for Railways -- always ill qualified for the job (which was why he got it in the first place) and the Chairman, should have resigned immediately. That would have happened on another planet. Here, where morality is rammed down our throats and pushed up our behinds daily, they both chose to ride out the storm.

The Minister, in what one can only term a grave loss of judgment, immediately cottoned on to the terrorism ploy, terming the accident the work of saboteurs. In proof he likened the Sarhad Station crash to an earlier one at Sanghi that claimed 307 lives. What the terrorist link in this bizarre connection is, he chose not to divulge. This far fetched, red herring theory was quickly abandoned as the blame was next put on the failure of the conductor of the Karachi Express who failed to read the signal. Blame was then shifted to the driver of the ill-fated train, which was very convenient since dead men tell no tales.

Thereafter, to further confound the issue and sidetrack the truth, the personnel responsible for changing the tracks were declared the culprits. This followed soon after the announcement that the signals at Sarhad Station were malfunctioning.

Why Minister Shamim Haider has not held the Mossad responsible, of course remains a mystery. If aliens indeed triggered the multiple crashes, he is keeping mum on that score. What these twists and turns and pathetic attempts at hiding the truth reveal is a complete absence of any knowledge worth the name about the ministry of which he is the head. It also reflects dereliction of duty and an inability to do the honorable thing.

But then, he is not the only one. No public official, sans a precious few, has ever accepted responsibility when things go wrong. Those guilty of the highest crimes and acts of gross negligence have, contrary to foolish expectations, gone on to greater glories. Recently, the Indian Railways Minister resigned after a horrific train crash, but that is India, where one can still find many decent people.

The five PR men that have been suspended are now rumored to be the convenient scapegoats, and those actually responsible for this criminal negligence are sitting it out waiting for the buzz to die down -- which it will soon enough.

This is now a hallowed tradition in the Pakistan Railways. Suspend a few men, make a few announcements, express deep shock and grief, ferry over the President, the Prime Minister and any other factotum not on another foreign junket, announce cash compensations -- a great favorite that one -- make noble resolves, threaten fast action, pray for those who are dead and then simply carry on. Probes never materialize; reports never see the light of day -- and why should they? They are only decoys to keep the axe of responsibility from severing a few fat heads.

Instead of taking action against the General Manager of Operations, Chief Operating Officer and Divisional Superintendent of Sukkur, some lowly ones are sent off into the night with a firm understanding that they will soon be back. The glorious traditions of the Railways cannot be allowed to wither and die. The relieving Station Master of Sarhad Station, who was having a well-deserved slumber while the three express trains ploughed into one another, has now been packed off. But make no mistake, he will be back soon; if not at Sarhad then at one of the many other stations; no blame attached, no enquiry report to sully his ACR and no punishment whatsoever. Accountability is for those idiots who have no connections.

Everyone from here to Timbuktu is asking for an enquiry, but if there is to be one, why have five men been already suspended? Note, suspended, not dismissed. What's the hurry folks? The dead are dead; most buried in nameless mass graves. In all this turmoil, the railway authorities have quietly removed the driver and conductor of the Tezgam, two men who might have been able to give an authentic account of what happened. Removing them to a secret location while they are grilled and made to kowtow to the official safe line. Certainly, they haven't been heard from, and no one can access them.

Some other things remain. First is the callous and instant announcement of cash compensation that the government wastes no time in announcing. Coming as it does on the heels of such an awful tragedy – lives rent asunder horribly –, it reflects the mind set of the rulers who believe that when all else fails, rely on cash. There is even a slab system of monetary awards versus limbs lost. Such is the mathematics of a nation that has lost all feeling for humanity.

Unlike London, and elsewhere in Europe, where flags flew at half-mast, where a two-minute silence swept cities and countries into one serene and sad reflective moment, there was nothing here. Flags fluttered as before, VIPs went here and there, sirens screaming and the President and later the freshly imported from Europe PM, Shaukat Aziz, arrived at the scene of the crime – security apparatus and all.

The President's arrival led to throwing out the relief workers, deranged relatives, paramedics and volunteers digging for bodies and clearing the debris. Well before he arrived, the area was clinically cleaned and made as antiseptic as an operating theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. Did it help the relief operations? No. But it was a good photo-op with somber-faced minions hanging on to each other to be as near the big man as physically possible.

The truth is that not only are we dead inside; so is Pakistan Railways. And it's not the only institution we have managed to murder quite effortlessly. It is well-known that the rail system is more or less what the British infidels left us over half a century back. Of the 70,000 odd bridges almost 90 percent are now well past their design life, and therefore unsafe. The track is unsafe and in shambles, the switching systems in disrepair, the equipment falling apart, the men worthless and elevated to positions and perks they do not deserve, the leadership in undeserving and unaccountable hands, the infrastructure in smithereens, the systems long abandoned and the whole edifice corrupt, tainted and putrid from top to bottom.

In this terrible world, people travel out of necessity. Nothing the Railways do will return the dead to life but although it is late and it will not happen, Mr. Haider, the Railways Minister should still resign before he barters his soul further. It won't mean a thing, but it might shame some others to do their jobs inefficiently -- that may be too much to expect.

Above all, all the VIPs must make a public apology to us, the people, who have to suffer, day in and day out, both them and the burden of their sins that we carry painfully on our breaking backs.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. This article appeared in The News. Email: masood_news@yahoo.com

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