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Saving Lives On Highways: Balochistan Takes Lead Over Federal Government

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Adnan Aamir writes about highway accidents in Balochistan and how hundreds of precious lives are lost in these incidents each year mainly because the injured fail to get emergency medical care on the spot. The provincial government has launched MERC to address this problem.

On September 30, the weather in Lahore was unusually pleasant when cadets were preparing for the 30th passing out parade of emergency rescue services academy.

Among the 201 trainees, around 96 were from Balochistan. These trainees were standing between the stands and the stage of the parade ceremony because they were the centre of attention.

The chief minister of Balochistan was there to witness the passing out of the first batch of rescuers who will start saving lives on the highways of Balochistan by the end of October.

These trainees were selected from the districts which fall on either side of the Quetta-Karachi highway. Belonging to underprivileged families, these trainees will man the emergency medical centres on highways in their districts.

They were selected for these jobs after the Balochistan government approved the establishment of Medical Emergency Response Centers (MERC) project earlier this year.

Highway Accidents vs Terrorism

According to a detailed study conducted by this scribe in the last 10 years, five times more people have died in highway accidents as compared to suicide blasts. During this period, around 488 people lost their lives in 31 suicide bomb blasts in Balochistan, while 2,238 people lost their lives in 3,797 highway accidents.

Deadly highway accidents result in the loss of precious lives almost every week. There are two main reasons for the staggering death toll from highway accidents. First, the narrow single-lane highways of Balochistan are without dividers, where collisions of vehicles take place due to overspeeding and unsafe overtaking.

Secondly, the absence of timely emergency medical care to the injured results in casualties that could otherwise be avoided.

Resultantly, highway accidents are proving to be a deadly trend in Balochistan. In this context, Balochistan’s cabinet approved the MERC project when it was convinced that highway accidents claim more lives in the province as compared to terrorism.

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Much Needed Lifesaving Project For Balochistan’s Highways

Initiated with funds amounting to Rs3.41 billion, this project will provide emergency medical aid to the victims of highway accidents in Balochistan. Additionally, around 25 emergency centres will be established on eight highways of the province. These centres will be fully equipped with ambulances, fire extinguishing equipment and the latest rescue machinery.

The first batch will start working on Quetta-Karachi highway, whereas the next batch will arrive in Emergency Services Academy by the end of the next week for their training. People’s Primary Healthcare Initiative (PPHI), a non-profit company funded by the Balochistan government to look after basic healthcare in the province, is running the MERC project.

Missing Role Of The Federal Government

National highways in Pakistan are a federal subject. These highways are built and regulated by the federal government. Therefore, technically it’s the responsibility of the government in Islamabad to take steps to control the increasing death toll on the highways of Balochistan.

However, like on many other issues, the federal government has blatantly ignored Balochistan on this matter. Despite repeated demands by the civil society in the province to upgrade the highways to dual carriageways, the federal government and its organ National Highway Authority (NHA) remained unfazed.

The federal government not only turned down all proposals to dualise Quetta-Karachi highway but it also did not expand the presence of National Highways and Motorway Police (NH&MP). Currently, the NH&MP only covers 515 kilometres out of 4,565 kilometres long national highways in the province.

Under these circumstances, the cash-strapped province used its own resources to start the MERC project because the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government at the Centre did not care about loss of life on the highways. Launching this service is one of the very few remarkable decisions of the incumbent provincial government.

Although, there are plenty of justifiable reasons to criticise Balochistan Awami Party’s (BAP) government, but the establishment of MERCs was indeed its most pro-people move.

Rolling Out Rescue Services In Cities Of Balochistan

During the passing out parade, it was revealed to this scribe that Rescue 1122 service operates in all 36 districts of Punjab, whereas, emergency services do not exist in any city of Balochistan. A few years back, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) trained 34 rescuers but laid them off after three years.

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In a classic case of large-scale mismanagement, millions of rupees worth of emergency rescue service equipment is currently lying idle in warehouses of PDMA.

After the successful passing out of the first batch of MERC trainees, the PPHI has been asked by the provincial government to roll out emergency services in major cities of Balochistan starting from Quetta.

Although, this is a good decision by the provincial government but it should not divert the attention of MERC from its core purpose of providing emergency healthcare on dangerous highways of the province.

The Way Forward

The governance system in Balochistan is flawed and therefore vested interests within the government apparatus do not want this project to succeed. Reportedly, less than 10 per cent of the approved budget of MERC has been released so far to PPHI, which is executing the project.

Despite approval from the cabinet, the people with vested interests are delaying the release of funds for this project. They prefer their petty personal interests over those previous lives which are lost in highway accidents on a regular basis. Therefore, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal has to protect MERC project from influential people within his own government.

Likewise, the federal government also needs to rise up to its responsibility of finding ways to prevent the loss of lives in highway accidents. Upgradation of national highways will take a lot of time but what National Highway Authority can easily do on an urgent basis is to redesign all the sharp turns on highways in Balochistan which can cause accidents. This will not require much funds and time. It only requires the resolve of the federal government, which is clearly missing in this case.

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