It was the dark night of August 7. Asif, a perky young boy who lives with his family near the Outfall Road, was convincing his buddies in the neighbourhood to join in the welcome rally of the deposed prime minster Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.
As soon as the boys had planned their night out, they heard an earth-shattering noise. As everyone found out later, a blast had occurred in the vicinity; it killed two people and injured many. Besides, a building collapsed and nearly 200 vehicles were damaged.
It transpired that the explosive material had been planted inside a truck loaded with fruit.
Ironically, the truck had been parked at the spot for well over three days. A suspecting local is said to have informed the police about its presence and a strange odour coming out of it, but no one seemed to take him seriously. After the explosion, a Lahore Capital City Police officer Amin Wayne confirmed that the police had been told about the truck in advance.
A few days since the deadly incident, a number of questions still haunt the public minds: Just how could a vehicle carrying such heavy explosive material enter the metropolitan city of Punjab? Why could the CCTV cameras, installed famously under the provincial government’s Safety City Project, not detect or record the movement of the truck? Why was the truck not scanned before it could enter Lahore?
TNS spoke with people from different government departments to find the answers. Adeel Amjad, an officer at the Punjab Excise and Taxation Department, said that the department had issued five million computerised number plates to different vehicles across the city since 2006. These number plates are CCTV camera-readable.
“Almost 160,000 computerised number plates were delivered in January this year,” he said. “Some 124,000 [number plates] have been taken off so far in different crackdowns in the city.”
According to Amjad, 80 per cent of the vehicles in the city have now got computerised number plates from the Excise Department Punjab. “The truck had an old, unacceptable number plate on it, though the registration details were found to be genuine. The original owner of the truck was traced through the department records.”
It is alleged that the cameras installed under the Safe City Project (SCP) are unable to read the number plates and that most of the cameras are non-functional. Earlier, the cameras weren’t able to show any images of the bomb blast that took place outside the Arfa Kareem Tower. The footage run on different media channels was captured by the cameras installed by the Tower’s own administration.
Hafiz Muhammad Tayyab, a spokesperson of the Safe City Project, countered the argument by saying that when the suicide bomber blew himself up on the Mall Road which killed 15 people including six policemen, the facilitator was identified through the CCTV cameras installed under the SCP and, later, arrested. “The camera installed near the Arfa Karim Tower, on Ferozpur Road, wasn’t operational because of the non-availability of optic fiber,” he said.
Reportedly, 4,500 CCTV cameras, out of the proposed 8,000, have already been installed in different localities of Lahore. Around 900 cameras connected with the PTCL network are functional in the city while the rest mostly just hang from the poles uselessly.
Tayyab said that in order to connect the said 8,000 cameras with the network, a 1500 or so kilometre long pipe would be laid out. “The plan is that by December this year, all the cameras should be connected and become operational, as the government has awarded the contract to the Chinese company Huawei.”
Tayyab further said that a “CCTV camera can only read the number plate; it cannot recognise what is inside the vehicle.” He suggested that the government should install scanners for vehicles of every size at each entrance point of Lahore. “This way we can make the city free of crime and terrorism as well. After the incident, the truck’s owner identification was traced with the help of excise department.”
The public, on the other hand, can’t stop complaining. Ismail Akhtar, who lives near Data Darbar, asked why the truck hadn’t been checked at the time when it was entering the city. “Pakistan is fighting war against terrorism and there’s no excuse for any security lapses,” he said. “Our children weren’t born to die in bomb blasts!”
Akhtar lamented the fact that the law enforcement agencies as well as the police were busy protecting the protest rallies of the ousted PM. He said that he didn’t allow his children to go outside for any festivity in the city, “Combating terrorism isn’t the job of the police; their responsibility is to maintain law and order, they aren’t trained to control terrorism.”
A high-ranking police official from Punjab told TNS on condition of anonymity that the truck blast was “purely our intelligence’s failure.
“Our whole society has been radicalised since Zia’s era. Unfortunately, space has been created for religious groups which will contest election and gain more power in the country. My fear is that our country shall see more brutality.”
The official also said that Lahore would be saved if the state eliminated the non-state actors from the seminaries. “It isn’t possible for the policemen on all the check posts to monitor thousands of vehicles at the entrance every day.”
About the the truck blast, he said that the truck owner Mahboob Ul Haq had been traced and should be presented before the police soon. “Further investigation is being done. The truck model number 1994 had been registered in the name of Mahboob Ul Haq. Duplicate papers of the truck were also registered in 2016. It is also being investigated how the truck entered Lahore despite carrying an old number plate. The agents are being checked.”
Dr Nausheen Hamid, member of the Punjab Assembly, said that security and safety of the people of Lahore wasn’t the top priority of the government. “The country needs a transparent counter-terrorism policy. No one talks about this. The ruling elite only hopes of gaining more power in the province. The rulers are being provided security. The police seems busy protecting them. They don’t think about the people who are more vulnerable. Even the National Action Plan (NAP) is not implemented according to its real spirit.”