The oil tanker spill didn’t expose the ‘jahalat’ of the poor, but the inhuman apathy of the ‘educated’

Published: July 11, 2017

A general view of the scene of an oil tanker explosion in Bahawalpur, Pakistan June 25, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

One wonders if there’s a special hell for those who quickly assign blame to the society’s poorest and most vulnerable members in the wake of every catastrophe.

A second oil tanker has toppled in Vehari, and locals have been found attempting to pilfer its fuel. This is uncomfortably similar to the situation just a few weeks ago, when over 200 people lost their lives trying to collect fuel from an overturned tanker near Bahawalpur.

The victims and their families who beggared our sympathies, got caught in a storm of hostile opinions instead. Most disconcertingly, these opinions were all aired by the society’s most affluent and privileged quarters who may never know the dilemma of risking life and limb for a few liters of free fuel.

Sensationalist media coverage hasn’t helped. With all the punditry and expert analyses collectively dedicated to the oil tanker incidents in Ahmedpur Sharqia and Vehari, one would’ve assumed a proportionate amount of attention bestowed to the safety regulations concerning the transport of fuel by road.

Relatively little has been said about the actual agencies whose oil tankers got toppled. Instead, focus has been scandalously diverted to ordinary locals who responded to the spillage as any underprivileged person normally would.

There’s a word the upper class loves to use for situations like these – ‘jahalat’ (ignorance).

It’s no secret that all national disasters are followed by robust discussions on the dinner tables of Bahria and Defence, about the ‘jahalat’ of the public. These discussions, laced with cathartic name-calling at the country’s most destitute population, are always self-congratulatory in nature. The object is to take pride in one’s own ‘zahanat’ (intelligence), for knowing things that the common rabble just doesn’t get.

The upper class regularly brings into question the morality of those who are less privileged, addressing the insatiable greed of the ‘lower classes’. In case of the horrifying oil tanker disaster near Bahawalpur, one may even have heard callous remarks about the victims ‘deserving’ the fate for either being unwise or immoral. Many commenters on social media went as far as to object to the meager compensation being paid to the victims of oil tanker explosion.

Any conversation of this sort among members of the upper middle class always bears a classist and self-soothing subtext; we deserve to be up here, and they deserve to be down there.

To acknowledge one’s own socio-economic privilege would be counterproductive to the goal of gratifying oneself. To admit that ‘jahalat’ is not a genetic disorder, but a subset of poverty in a capitalist system, robs us of the justification to punch down on the country’s weakest citizenry with our ‘educated’ opinions.

It’s far too inconvenient to admit that the people who attempted to gather fuel from an overturned tanker were indeed aware that fuel is a flammable substance. That would mean that the people in Vehari and Ahmedpur knowingly risked their lives for that oil, which would imply economic desperation more than immorality or idiocy.

One may sit thousands of miles away in a gated community to judge and psychoanalyse the allegedly ‘jahil’ public of Ahmedpur and Vehari. But can one imagine what the sight of 5,500 gallons of oil flowing wastefully down the road, from the eyes of a person earning less than Rs300 a day?

We have become dangerously accustomed to excusing the atrocities of the system and assigning blame to the passive victims of these forces. Fingers are rarely pointed up at the powerful who create the conditions in which such accidents and disasters occur. They are instead jabbed down at those struggling to survive in conditions that they had no part in creating.

The oil tanker disaster did not expose the ‘jahalat’ of the underprivileged. It instead laid bare the inhuman apathy of the ‘educated’.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Saqìß Rehan

    There’s a difference between ‘free and stolen’…. Nobody was distributing free fuel there… No one had any right to salvage it… People shouldn’t be burned like that it is indeed sad but it should be highlighted that this mentality of stealing Jb moqa mile is justified is wrong and Poverty doesn’t justify crimes in any court of lawRecommend

  • Rohan

    Be happy that it wasn’t a terrorist attack that killed so manyRecommend

  • Jan

    The Oil tankers association is the most powerful union and mafia. Railway and pipeline is the cheapest and safest mode of transportation.Recommend

  • Milind A

    Stealing can never be justified. Our parents and grandparents generation lived at less than 100 Rs per day (inflation-adjusted), but upheld values and didn’t resort to stealing. However you’re right on the affluent classes part. For them thievery means outright stealing or looting and they conveniently ignore the other (and subtle) forms of thievery they indulge in – some of this is evading taxes using legal loopholes, trying to get freebies e.g. free passes for an event through a friend, when they cannot qualify for these, getting bogus handicap certificates (for trivial injuries) in order to qualify somewhere etc.Recommend