Punjab SACM Hasaan Khawar
Punjab SACM Hasaan Khawar Image Credit: Supplied

Truth. That lies beyond the white noise of nightly talk shows masquerading as informative healthy debates, and between the inadequate messaging of two hundred and eighty characters of tweets and occasional press briefings of government representatives. To get verifiable updates on some current issues that have long term relevance, I contacted the person who is new in his position but is known for his straightforward and no-frills presentation of the work of the government of Punjab: Hasaan Khawar, Special Assistant to Chief Minister (SACM) Punjab on Information, Special Initiatives, Tourism and Parks and Horticulture Authorities.

Khawar is also the sole Spokesperson of the Government of Punjab.

I asked SACM Hasaan Khawar a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: The Murree tragedy. What steps is the Punjab government taking to ensure that none of what led to the utterly unfortunate deaths of so many tourists will never happen again?

SACM Hasaan Khawar: Immediately after the huge tragedy in Murree, Chief Minister of Punjab Usman Buzdar visited Murree and formed a high-level inquiry committee. The committee has completed its deliberations, identified a number of lapses, and named the officials who showed negligence to their duties. Chief Minister has already taken action against all those officials.

The report has made recommendations for several areas in which we can make improvements to prevent any such tragedy in future. Chief Minister Buzdar has ordered immediate implementation of those recommendations, one of which is to give Murree the status of a district to speed up decision-making processes. Chief Minister has already approved it in principle, and it is soon be implemented in letter and spirit.

Chief minister has also directed to set up relief and rescue centres with 1122 and Punjab tourism department to make Murree a safer destination for tourists. An early warning system in partnership with the Pakistan Meteorological Department is being established. We have plans to strengthen, as per the directions of the CM, our snow clearing units and equip them with modern gadgetry. He has also instructed to install a modern automated entry and exit system for Murree to maintain real time traffic count, and to provide a basis for traffic control when needed to deter all kinds of accidents.

Is there any plan to facilitate travel to vacation destinations other than Murree?

Over the last many decades, succussive governments have not made any considerable investment in creating alternative tourist destinations, and consequently, the pressure on Murree has been relentless. Chief Minister of Punjab had already directed to develop alternative destinations, and a great deal of work has been done for that to become a reality soon.

We are primarily focusing on three alternative zones: Kotli Sattian, Soon Valley and south Punjab. Chief Minister has initiated a number of projects in these regions, including building of pathways, providing signage, and work on ecotourism sites, such as glamping pods and other facilities. All of that will, hopefully, attract substantial tourism, easing up the pressure on Murree.

Chief Minister has also requested the federal government to develop a tourism highway in Kotli Sattian, which will provide huge support to all our tourism building efforts. In south Punjab, the focus is on the promotion of winter tourism.

As the Omicron cases seem to be on the rise, how is your government dealing with the situation?

The Omicron cases are indeed on the rise, and we have a strategy in place to fight the new wave. Our testing capacity is robust; Chief Minister Buzdar has directed the health department to make full use of their testing capacity to ensure that we are aware of the hot spots to take action accordingly.

On the directions of the CM, our government is running an awareness campaign; we are encouraging people to maintain social distancing, follow SOPs, and wear masks for the safety of their lives and of others.

Most importantly, Chief Minister has greenlighted all the resources needed to speed up vaccination. In 2021, the Punjab government initiated the Reach Every Door campaign to provide vaccination services to citizens. More than eighty-five percent of our school children are vaccinated, partially or fully. More than seventy percent of our target population is partially or fully vaccinated. More than fifty-seven percent of our population is fully vaccinated. We do hope that like the earlier waves, we will be able to handle the current crisis quite effectively.

The introduction of the Naya Pakistan Sehat Card in Punjab is one of the most important people-focused achievements of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Are there any special measures being taken by the Punjab government to guarantee that the recipients of the card receive the promised treatment at private hospitals?

Under the instructions of Chief Minister Buzdar, the Naya Pakistan Sehat Card initiative is being rolled out on a fast-track basis. Currently, it is operational in four divisions: Sahiwal, Dera Ghazi Khan, Lahore, and Rawalpindi. The other divisions will soon have the Sehat Card facility as Chief Minister is fully determined for Punjab to complete the rollout by the 31st of March 2022. He has also directed the health department to accelerate the process of the empanelling of private hospitals.

The response, so far, is great. Since the card became operational in Lahore on the 1st of January 2022, more than five thousand people have availed services in private hospitals, and they rate their experience as excellent.

Chief Minister Buzdar’s instructions to keep the process of providing good healthcare services to the people of Punjab are quite clear. On his directions, the health department has also launched an app to facilitate people’s access to the health card. We are hopeful that this service will eliminate the difference between how the poor are treated versus the rich when they go to a healthcare facility.

For the next three years, Chief Minister Buzdar has allocated four hundred billion rupees for the Sehat Card programme.

There is much to do, not much being done about animal cruelty—shut down animal captivity in Tollinton market and other animal-selling markets, ban culling of stray dogs, penalize gratuitous beatings of animal—strays and/or ones forced to work for entertainment or labour. Beyond humans, does your government consider animal cruelty in Lahore to be an issue that needs immediate and long-term action?

Working against animal cruelty is definitely a very important priority of our government. To prevent animal cruelty, our livestock department is already working in Lahore with Commissioner of Lahore and the district administration. We are also looking at Tollinton Market to ensure that the pet market is kept separately from the meat market, and that all hygiene and other safety guidelines are followed.

The Punjab government has imposed a ban on the killing of stray dogs, with a fine of up to fifty thousand rupees for killing a stray dog. We are also doing a programme for dog population control, but we are very clear about discarding any cruel practices in that regard.

The Society for Prevention for Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is working with University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. They are the main force behind the efforts for humane treatment of animals. They are also ensuring that any pet owners if found to engage in animal cruelty are fined. SPCA has special arrangements to provide temporary boarding for animals who are victims of cruelty.