SC finds 'no valid reason' for keeping malls closed, says no need to keep markets closed on weekends

Updated May 18, 2020

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Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed is hearing a suo motu case regarding measures taken to deal with Covid-19 pandemic. — SC website/File
Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed is hearing a suo motu case regarding measures taken to deal with Covid-19 pandemic. — SC website/File

Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed on Monday issued directions to reopen shopping malls across the country.

During a hearing of a suo motu case regarding measures taken to deal with the coronavirus crisis — being heard by a five-member bench comprising the CJP, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed — Justice Ahmed questioned the "logic" behind keeping malls closed.

In its written order, issued hours after the hearing was adjourned, the court noted that the Punjab government and Islamabad administration had approached the National Health Services and Research Centre (NHSRC) for permission to reopen malls and will likely obtain one today.

"If such can be done by the biggest province of Pakistan, i.e. Punjab, why the similar cannot be done by Sindh and apparently, we find no valid reason or justification for the same," the order read, directing Sindh government to approach the NHSRC for permission today.

It also observed that markets and shops were also opened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Gilgit-Balitistan, and the governments had agreed to ensure that standard operating procedures (SOPs) are followed.

"We expect that after such application is made, the NHSRC shall give their decision today and if their decision is that shopping malls are allowed to open, the respective provincial government shall allow the shopping malls to be open and shall not create any hindrance or obstruction in this regard but ensure that SOPs are followed," the court order said.

The order also addressed the opening of markets on Saturday and Sunday, saying that the move was a "violation of Articles 4, 18 and 25 of the Constitution" and was not "justifiable".

"We do not find any justifiable rational or reasonable classification on the basis of which these two days are excluded from doing business, for that, all days of the week are the same. It is for the convenience of the human beings that the days have been given names, otherwise, there is no distinction between other days of the week from Saturday and Sunday."

The order "declared [the decision] to be illegal and accordingly set aside".

Earlier, during the hearing today, the chief justice had remarked: "Coronavirus does not go anywhere on Saturday and Sunday.

"What is the reason behind keeping markets closed on Saturday and Sunday?"

While responding to the queries by the bench, Sindh Advocate General Salman Talibuddin said that the province was implementing all decisions made by the National Coordination Committee (NCC), which is headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The bench said that it will be the governments' responsibility to ensure that SOPs are being followed.

The court also restricted Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani, who had appeared before court today, from sealing shops and markets.

"Instead of sealing shops, make sure that SOPs are followed," the chief justice said and directed the commissioner to reopen the shops that had been sealed. He inquired which "small markets" had been opened in the metropolis. The Sindh advocate general said that all markets, except shopping malls, were open.

"Are Zainab Market and Raja Bazar small markets?" the chief justice asked.

"About 70 per cent people go to malls for fun," Shallwani said. Earlier this month, the government had decided to ease restrictions across the country and had allowed businesses to operate with SOPs in place. Markets — that had been closed as part of measures taken to curb the novel coronavirus — were also reopened.

The SOPs went out the window once the lockdown was eased as hordes of people headed out to markets without taking any precautionary measures.

The Karachi administration had sealed multiple stores, markets and salons for allowing large crowds to gather.

Hours after the SC's written order was issued, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — the chairperson of the ruling party in Sindh — expressed his views on the decision regarding reopening malls.

Taking to Twitter, he said: "Hoping sanity prevails in the highest court of our land. I don’t want to believe that the superior judiciary would pass any judgment endangering the health and lives of the people of Pakistan."

"I’m sure all honourable judges will give judgements based on facts & medical realities."

In another tweet, he asked whether we are "doing all we can to support our heroes?", referring to medics.

Read: These are the people risking their lives in order to save yours — here is what they have to say

NDMA quizzed on expenses

The top court bench, in its written order, said that it was "not at all satisfied" by the report presented by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), saying that it could "find no reason why so much money is being spent on this coronavirus".

"There are other serious ailments prevailing in the country, from which people are dying daily and those ailments are not being catered and the coronavirus (Covid-19), which apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan, is swallowing huge money."

The order went on to say: "We are not suggesting by any means that the governments should not attend to coronavirus but we expect that the governments should not put all its resources for this one disease, nor the country should be made all together dysfunctional, because of this disease, for its consequences will be highly detrimental to the people of Pakistan, and the federal government and all provincial governments should address itself on this point."

During the hearing, the bench had grilled NDMA over the money being spent to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The NDMA had submitted a report over the amount spent on medical equipment and quarantine centres for suspected patients.

"What is the reason behind spending hundreds and thousands of rupees on one patient?" the chief justice had asked the NDMA representative.

"Money has been spent on medical equipment, testing kits and quarantine centres," the NDMA representative explained.

The chief justice expressed concerns over the money allocated to cope with the health crisis and said: "Corona did not come so that someone can take away Pakistan's money."

"Billions of rupees are being spent on tin charpoys," he added.

Justice Amin expressed similar reservations. "I don't think money is being spent on corona with due consideration," he said.

The NDMA representative said that Rs25 billion had been allocated to the body and all of it had not yet been spent. The chief justice said that apart from the amount allocated to NDMA, the government had also handed out money to provinces. Money had also been allocated for the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme.

Justice Ahmed inquired about the steps NDMA has taken to deal with the locust attack and said that crops planted for next year would not be able to grow.

"The agricultural sector will not remain as important if industries become operational," the chief justice said.

The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.