The Shell fine: A step in the right direction or a smokescreen?

It has recently been announced that OGRA – Pakistan’s Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority – has ordered Shell Oil Company to shell out Rs.257 million (or Rs.25.7 crore or $2.4 million) in damages caused as a result of its oil transportation tanker’s explosion in Bahawalpur late last month. The announcement comes twelve days after the incident took place on June 25, which is quick by any Pakistani governmental body’s standards.

As per the report, the amount-to-be-paid consisted of three components: penalty (Rs.10 million), compensation to the families of each of the deceased (Rs.1 million each), and compensation to those who were injured (Rs.0.5 million each). The reason given by OGRA behind the imposition of the said fine was that the tragedy was caused by “non-professional driving/vehicle being lesser than required specs”.

Let’s rewind back a few months. October 25, 2016, Gulraiz Colony, Rawalpindi. Oil tanker overturns, setting itself on fire in a residential area of a major Pakistani city causing damage to a bank, a restaurant, several vehicles, shops, and a building housing residential flats (of which some were completely destroyed). The reasons given behind the incident are varied with one source suggesting that “the oil tanker was illegally passing through the said area to evade paying tax at the toll plaza”, and another suggesting that “the tanker crashed with generator of a restaurant owing to over-speeding.” Either way, it was the driver’s – and in turn the company’s – fault. Publicizing the oil tanker owners’ name considered newsworthy ?Any action taken by OGRA against the responsible parties? Nyet, and nyet.

Fast forward a week. November 1, 2016, Gadani, Balochistan. In a slightly different yet equally tragic incident, up to/more than 26 workers die in a blast in a decommissioned, 22,000 tonne oil tanker ship anchored at a shipbreaking yard in Hub, Balochistan. In the aftermath of the incident, Shipbreaking Mazdoor Union President, Bashir Mehmoodani was reported to have commented, “Labourers here are treated worse than animals. I demand that the government hold a proper inquiry and take action against those who run this shipyard and the owners of the oil tanker.” Another report comments very matter-of-factly that “Industrial accidents are common in Pakistan, with workplaces often forgoing basic safety measures and equipment in the absence of legislation to protect labourers.” Full stop.

Did anybody pay any heed to Bashir Mehmoodani’s words following this devastation (if somebody even went so far as being devastated by this commonplace event)? Was workers’ workplace safety improved in any niche of the country’s industrial sector? Was there any action taken against the demolished oil tanker’s owners? Was any compensation paid to any of the deceased’s families?

You probably know what I am trying to get at, by now. Yes, another cynic who is trying to “discredit” a noble step taken by the government in the “right direction”. Trust me, I have no association with Shell – I don’t even like their fuel. They’re a British-Dutch-US company, and I am a Pakistani citizen. I am a Pakistani citizen, yes, and therefore I smell fish whenever the government is overly enthusiastic about handing out fines to overseas multibillion-dollar companies (is it a smokescreen, hiding something more important?). I am not a capitalist, no, but I also smell fish when the government decides to lay the entire blame on the owner of the oil tanker, for deaths in which the deceased themselves had a considerable role to play (may God rest their souls in peace), but not for those in which they had absolutely no say.

Call me a cynic, a pessimist, or whatever you may, even if this fine sees the light of the day – which I doubt – it is most likely a one-of incident.

Or do we really want to believe that our conscientious governments of Raymond Davis and Panama fame would suddenly dare to hold all mighty foreign/local investors/companies accountable for each of the tragedies they are responsible for, and for each of the workers’ rights they violate every single day? Not today, no.

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