Fire works?

Recently, the debate related to corruption charges against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and some of his cabinet colleagues seems to have become so heated that critical documents relevant to it caught fire at the Privatisation Commission (PC) building. According to reports, a mysterious fire broke out Friday on the second floor of the PC building where very important documents related to privatised national entities had been stored. It gutted records, equipment and furniture. It was the second incident of a mysterious fire at the Shaheed-e-Millat Secretariat in five years in which sensitive documents were destroyed. Our government seems to have acquired abilities that would make Stephen King’s horrific Charlie (of Firestarter fame), who could conjure up fires just by thinking about them, seem like a cute Barbie doll. Or maybe the Oil and Gas Development Company (OGDC) executives with offices on that floor spend too much time gassing. If the presence of Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) in the building cannot prevent short circuits, which officials have alleged are the cause of the fire, woe betide them indeed. Or perhaps they are more interested in power than electricity. Either way, fires in government buildings are fast becoming as predictable as military coups in Pakistan. The Privatisation Commission is merely doing its bit to uphold what is by now an honoured tradition of inflammatory material turning to ashes in our government offices.

Such “mysterious” fires have a way of breaking out every now and then when some documents become too much of a nuisance for the authorities to keep in their buildings, or for lack of storage space. Police records are notorious for being a fire magnet. If only the so-called evidence and confessions garnered from the innocents accused of false crimes were to get lost in the rubble, justice might unwittingly be served. The Punjab Revenue Department building has such a history of catching fire every few months that wags are suggesting it be renamed the ‘Pyrotechnics Research Department’. Given the importance of the documents present at the Privatisation Commission building, instead of playing with fireworks, perhaps they should focus on fire less and work more.

To add more fuel to the fire, the Opposition has termed this incident as a deliberate attempt to obliterate sensitive evidence. A spokesman of the Privatisation Commission has claimed that important records relating to all transactions have remained completely safe; only time would tell how much of it is really ‘safe’.

It was not very surprising to find out that there was no fire-fighting equipment available in such an important government building, where the fire safety code should be scrupulously followed and the requisite equipment must be properly installed. Expecting the government to follow safety codes and building codes is too much to ask. Why would the government waste precious money in installing proper fire-fighting equipment when that same money could be utilised in building spacious new wings in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat or buying new imported cars for the high-ups? Or perhaps the government considers that its work can hardly be vitally important under a dictatorship. Even if that is correct, the government must realise that it must be an exemplar of best practices for the rest of society. It is commonly said that no one can afford to be complacent about fire safety because complacency kills. And if we are not careful, this particular sort of complacency might kill what little semblance of good governance we have left.

(Note: A special thanks to Hemanshu Kumar who helped me with this)

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