SC annoyed at lack of vision to battle coronavirus

Updated 14 Apr 2020

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Supreme Court laments over lack of unity between Centre and provincial governments. — AFP/File
Supreme Court laments over lack of unity between Centre and provincial governments. — AFP/File

• Refrains from issuing directive against PM’s aide at request of attorney general
• Sets aside Punjab decision to impose ban on inter-provincial movement

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court assailed the federal and Sindh governments on Monday for not demonstrating a clear vision and warned of a looming chaos and anarchy if extreme steps like lockdown were taken without a proper backup plan to cater to people’s needs.

“The situation of this magnitude demands consensus and uniformity, but the provincial governments are going in a different direction, while the central government on the other,” observed Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed while hearing a suo motu case about measures taken by the federal and provincial governments to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Expressing extreme concern over efforts to reduce effects of economy’s slowdown, the apex court set aside the Punjab government’s decision to impose a ban on the inter-provincial movement on the grounds that it was against the constitutional guarantees of free movement.

During the hearing, the Supreme Court came close to issuing a directive against Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, but avoided dictating it when Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan pleaded that such extreme order at this juncture would prove to be the death knell.

“Such comments always have a negative impact,” the AG emphasised, adding that Dr Mirza had a vast experience to this credit and no one had visualised such a grave situation the nation was experiencing. “Please do not disembark him [Dr Mirza] midway from the flight, rather leave it to the government to deal with,” he pleaded.

The chief justice was also bitter about keeping a large number of aides by stating that there was an entire army of special assistants and advisers who had taken over the entire cabinet making the body completely redundant. “What is the justification of keeping such a large cabinet?” the chief justice wondered, adding that many members of the cabinet did not have a clean past rather had criminal record. “We are not even sure whether Dr Mirza is clean or not.”

At this, the attorney general said the Federal Investigation Agency had initiated an inquiry against Dr Mirza for exporting face masks at the request of the Chinese government since they needed it the most at that time. “This was done with the directive of the government since the Chinese have always assisted us,” he said.

The chief justice was also upset over the fact that despite earlier directives, neither any legislation was made to streamline preventions in the wake of coronavirus nor had parliament ever met to take up this serious issue when many countries had done this.

The attorney general informed the court that he had met Prime Minister Imran Khan and a proper ordinance was in the making to take care of everything, adding that parliament was an independent institution like the apex court and though the court’s concern could be conveyed, no directive could be issued to it.

Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin observed that the court was not concerned about the governance matters but expressing legitimate concern as there was a big question mark on the implementation of government’s policies on social distancing and other things.

The chief justice deplored that the government was doing nothing except for holding meetings and issuing statements and closing down all premises without realising its impact. “How many people are dying of Covid-19 than other diseases,” the chief justice asked, observing that people were starving but a huge amount of money was being spent on advisers and assistants. Besides, he regretted, there was a lot of overlapping as the ministers, special assistants and advisers were doing the same thing.

“There are so many people around and with all due respect to the prime minister, I don’t know, whether he is aloof of this,” observed the chief justice.

At this, the attorney general retorted that the prime minister was not aloof rather he was taking all interest and was the most honest man, adding that discussions and decisions always started with meeting. In such a challenging time, he said, the government was doing all its best, adding that there was no dearth of laws, but what “we lack is implementation”.

“Who has given guidelines the US, the UK and many other countries have followed, but why our parliamentarians are afraid of making a collective decision,” the chief justice wondered, stressing the need for utilising big manufacturers by employing their workers to locally produce medical equipment.

The chief justice wondered why the government was charging for diagnosing coronavirus when it should be free of cost.

The attorney general advised the court not to go on the statements of politicians because they have their own way of doing things and functioning. “There may be genuine concerns and there may be deficiencies in combating the menace, but the government is putting up best efforts,” he said.

Justice Umar Ata Bandial emphasised that this was the time to show leadership in the wake of a national calamity, explaining that what the apex court was pointing out was that it could not be a silent spectator when fundamental rights were involved as this was the issue of life and liberty of the people.

“The government is the face and there is a need for having some consensus since we have to stand by the people, especially doctors, who are putting their lives at risk while combating the virus outbreak,” Justice Bandial observed.

“All the political parties should come together since it is a national calamity. We need to make the economy moving since we cannot allow people to die of hunger,” he said.

“Doctors must be saluted at this time, but have you ever honoured them,”

Justice Bandial asked the attorney general and wondered if the government could not deliver then who would do that. “This is the time to show leadership,” he observed.

Advocate General for Sindh Salman Talibuddin informed the court that there was no complete shutdown in 11 union councils of Karachi, adding that lockdown had been imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

But the chief justice was not happy with this assertion, saying soon a time would come when the mob would attack and no one, be it Aiwan-i-Sadr (presidency), Sunset Boulevard, Dr Ziauddin Road, etc, will be safe.

When the chief justice questioned the Sindh government’s ability to deal with the situation, the advocate general wondered whether the apex court was directing “us to remove lockdown from 11 UCs or the top court is painting a picture of absolute anarchy”.

“With all sincerity we are only cautioning you because this is written on the wall,” Justice Qazi Amin retorted. “We are heading towards a catastrophe as the coronavirus is also threatening our social and economic fabric,” he said, regretting that political parties were blaming each other at a time when “we need a bipartisan approach”.

The nation should not be divided at this juncture, Justice Amin observed, explaining that parliament reflected the strength and capacity of the nation. “We are not criticising any political parties rather we should all rise to the occasion,” Justice Amin said.

The court was not happy over the steps being taken by the Sindh government as well as the lack of complete information about the distribution of Rs8 billion among the people in the province and sought a comprehensive report this regard.

“People are crying in Sukkur, Karachi and Hyderabad, but the provincial government has no programme how to handle and ensure supplies. What happened in the Lines Area yesterday?” asked the chief justice.

“That is why the prime minister is insisting against complete shutdown since there should be some balance,” the attorney general said. Obviously, as a matter of policy, the session of parliament was not being called, but all laws were in place, he said, adding that the government had recently launched one of the largest aid programmes in the country.

The chief justice recalled that the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and many other countries had make laws regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

“All the provincial governments are also required to provide information about steps being taken,” the court order said, asking them to provide complete support and necessary protective equipment to the doctors.

The court will take up the matter again on Monday next week.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2020