• Calls for inquiry through judicial commission or parliamentary committee
• Shehbaz terms incident ‘manslaughter, criminal act’
• Government describes it as ‘natural disaster’
ISLAMABAD: Holding the federal and Punjab governments directly responsible for the Murree tragedy, the opposition parties in the National Assembly on Monday rejected the inquiry committee formed by Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and called for constituting a judicial commission to fix responsibility, besides asking Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down over his alleged failure to protect the lives of innocent people at a distance merely two-hour drive from the capital.
The lower house of parliament on the opening day of its new session again saw the members from both sides indulging in a blame game over the Murree incident as Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, while responding to the opposition’s criticism, alleged that the previous rulers did nothing for promotion of tourism and their focus remained on building “palaces” for themselves.
When Leader of the Opposition and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in their hard-hitting speeches demanded formation of a judicial commission, lone Awami National Party (ANP) MNA Amir Haider Hoti and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) MNA Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali asked the speaker to form a bipartisan parliamentary committee comprising members from both houses of parliament to investigate the matter.
It was on the opposition’s demand that Speaker Asad Qaiser suspended the whole agenda, which also included a debate on the controversial Finance (Supplementary) Bill 2021, generally known as mini-budget, in order to allow the members to have a debate on the last week’s tragic incident in which 23 people, including women and children, lost their lives in their stranded cars during heavy snowfall in and around the picturesque and famous hill station of Murree.
Before giving floor to Shehbaz Sharif to open the debate, the speaker announced that the government and the opposition had reached an understanding that the debate on the finance bill would commence on Tuesday (today).
Later, chief whip of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Aamir Dogar moved a motion stating that the Tuesday’s private member’s day would be shifted to Friday for a debate on the mini-budget. Before moving the motion, he stated that he was doing it with the consent of the opposition parties, which had previously declared that they would not let the government pass the mini-budget, come what may.
The opposition members in their speeches lambasted the PTI governments at the Centre and in Punjab as well as the local administration of Murree for not issuing any red alert for the tourists and residents of the hill station despite the fact that the Met Office had already forecast a heavy snowfall well in time.
They also criticised the tehsil administration of Murree as well as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and its provincial chapter for not moving the machinery and other necessary equipment required to clear the roads during and after the snowfall as per already set SOPs (standard operating procedures).
They regretted that no one from the government or the administration responded to the emergency calls which the stranded tourists, including women and children, trapped in snowfall kept on making for nearly 20 hours.
However, the treasury members, including PTI MNA from Murree Sadaqat Abbasi, termed it a “natural calamity”, claiming that people had died because of the carbon monoxide emission and not because of cold. He claimed that the rescue workers were on the toes, but they could not reach the stranded people as fallen trees and electricity poles had blocked the road.
Formally opening the debate, Mr Sharif questioned whether the incident was a “natural occurrence or manslaughter”. He said there were no arrangements in place and even traffic officials and authorities responsible for removing the snow were missing. Terming it “a criminal act of negligence and inefficiency”, the opposition leader said this crime could not be pardoned.
“If there was an influx of tourists flocking to the hill station, what steps did the government take to deter them?” he asked, stating that this was not the first time that it had snowed in Murree or the first time that tourists had flocked at the hill station. He said people were unable to visit for the past two years due to the pandemic, but their happiness had turned into sorrow due to the government’s “corrupt approach, worst criminal negligence and administrative inefficiency”.
“They said that the administration was not prepared. If that was the case, then what are you there for? Resign and go home,” said Mr Sharif in an apparent reference to a tweet by Prime Minister Imran Khan after the Murree tragedy.
Mr Sharif, who had previously served as the Punjab chief minister, said the SOPs to deal with such a situation in Murree were already in place for several years. He said the PML-N government had procured and installed machinery and equipment with huge funds.
“People died because of their criminal negligence and they say a committee will investigate,” said Mr Sharif, terming the government’s inquiry committee a joke. Instead, he said, a judicial commission should be formed to investigate the incident so that the culprits could be exposed to the nation.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said a minister through his messages on social media was rejoicing at the flocking of tourists in Murree as well as boasting about an economic upturn, but the same minister after the tragedy started blaming the people that they did not check the weather forecast before going to Murree.
“This is hypocrisy of the highest order. Victim blaming those who have suffered from a tragedy is the forte of the prime minister and his ministers,” said the PPP chairman while citing the examples of the protest sit-in by Hazaras of Quetta and gang rape of a woman on Sialkot-Lahore Motorway. He said when the people were dying in Murree, the Punjab chief minister was attending a party’s meeting in Lahore.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who took the floor soon after Mr Sharif, lashed out at the opposition leader and even called him a “show-off”.
“He [Shehbaz Sharif] is here after taking an exemption from court in a money laundering case. I thought he would speak like a leader but he has once again proven that he is just a show-off who has nothing to say,” said Mr Chaudhry who left the house soon after delivering the speech.
Mr Chaudhry said Shehbaz Sharif used to do politics on such accidents. He alleged that the Sharif family had built “palaces” using government resources, instead of spending it on development and infrastructure in Punjab and Murree. “They are questioning a government that created 13 new tourist resorts in three years,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Imran Khan was the first to promote the country as a tourist destination.
“Today, when there is a revolution in the country’s tourism, they are teaching us about what should and should not have been done,” he added.
The minister said more than 100,000 tourists entered Murree over a span of five days, and while PTI MNAs and MPAs were helping with the rescue efforts, PML-N leaders were nowhere to be spotted. He said the roads were cleared in 24 hours.
PPP stalwart Syed Khursheed Shah and Asad Mehmood of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam said the prime minister should have come to parliament and apologised to the people over the incident.
The members from Balochistan, including government ally Aslam Bhootani, drew the attention of the house to the devastation caused by rains and floods in the province and asked the federal government to provide help to the people and announce a relief package for them.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2022