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 (

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

  • Haris

    The question was not the ‘jahalat’ in this incident, a 10 year old knows that petrol burns and it can burn you. Burning was the very reason they were collecting petrol for. The question was the unethical behaviour of the masses. Howsoever poor or jahil someone might be, stealing can not be forgo in sympathies.

    As a nation we must learn by addressing the root cause, which is not the road safety violations or the tyranny of the upper class – in this incident – as portrayed in this article.Recommend

  • JB

    There is a very thin line here. I would not go so far as saying that anyone deserves to live or die or be in the circumstances they are…the fact of the matter is that economic desperation does not justify theft. Yes, the OMCs involved should follow safety protocols and they should be penalised for not doing so. But theft is still inexcusable. People are stealing…whether its one litre or a hundred. It is still theft and economic desperation would not make it ok.
    At the same time, people who are saying that the victims deserved what happened to them, need to get their heads checked…get yourself admitted to mental asylum…I am sure you can afford that!Recommend

  • 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

  • MJ

    Rich or poor, unfortunately it is second nature for most of us to take advantage of a situation where we know that there will be no imminent accountability and we can possibly get away with the goods. People do so based on their ability and the size of the loot that they are exposed to. Top level politicians get away with billions, get free loans from banks and sell land that does not belong to them, business owners steal electricity, don’t pay proper taxes and sell inferior quality products while lying about them. These people were given an opportunity to get free petrol, they took advantage of it. Not all of them were dirt poor … I saw many cars and expensive bikes as well in the mix trying to get a piece of the loot. Bottom line is that they gave in to temptation of getting something for free. Being poor or rich just changes the scale at which things become attractive to steal.Recommend

  • 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

  • Salim Alvi

    Compare this incident in Pak with 26/11 and 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai done by terrorist criminals in uniform and jihadis who are supported by cousin of colonial power.

    Death of 500 odd people in your economic capital by your enemy in a two incidents was not provocative enough, why should this one be? Countries that are restrained by their ” betters” can only eat their excrement and praise the taste as it were a candy. These new normals will keep on gaining new ground, every iteration taking them closer to the only threshold that the third worlders are allowed to complain about, nuclear weapons. Till that time, they can kill our people, swindle our wealth, steal our land, demand subsidized Indian medical attention before our citizens, make moolah off Indian showbiz and then still preach about the hatred this wretched land and it’s people generate.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Jinah stole in 1947, Mohatta palace in Karachi from Hindu Marwadi after making sure that his Malbar Hill, Mumbai, India residence was rented out to a firang.Recommend

  • Gratgy

    It definitely did not look like economic desperation more like opportunism. Fools rush where angels fear to treadRecommend