Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Thursday came down hard on the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) over the Murree tragedy , in which at least 22 people died after their cars were stranded in a snowstorm, saying the fatalities would not have occurred if NDMA was "prepared and had taken prior measures".
In its written order, the court also observed that "prima facie, the failure to implement the NDMA Act is the sole factor which had led to the loss of precious innocent lives, including nine children."
"Further delay in implementation of the NDMA Act is likely to expose human lives to grave risk," the order read.
Tens of thousands of people had thronged Murree last week, creating traffic jams which were exacerbated by heavy snowfall. Among those stuck and forced to spend the night in cars, 22 had lost their. Eight of them froze to death while others probably died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes.
Hammad Abbasi, a Murree resident, had subsequently filed a petition in the high court through Advocate Danish Ishraq Abbasi, calling for an investigation into the incident and action against those responsible.
"When tourists were going to Murree through toll plaza, no one stopped them or informed them of the danger," the petitioner's counsel informed the court at the onset of the hearing today.
At this, Justice Minallah called Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Syed Tayyab Shah to the rostrum, instructing him to read the laws about the NDMA.
"This is such a massive body in which all people concerned are present. The opposition is there too. Has there ever been a meeting of this body?" the judge inquired from the DAG about the National Disaster Management Commission.
To that, the DAG responded he could only inform the court after taking instructions in this regard.
The judge ordered NDMA officials to appear before the court today and answer whether the body had ever held a meeting, adding that there should have been a management plan in place to deal with such situations.
"Come and inform the court that if the meeting did not take place then why was it so. The plea in the petition is that timely action should have been taken," the judge remarked.
The hearing resumed after an NDMA representative appeared in the courtroom.
"You are responsible for this incident. Every [official] included in the NDMA law is responsible for these deaths. The whole state is responsible for these deaths," the chief justice said while addressing the NDMA official.
"Determine that who is responsible for the 22 people who died," the judge asked the official, who then proceeded to read out the law related to the authority.
"If preparations and measures had been taken, 22 people and children would not have died," the judge remarked, questioning: "Has there ever been a meeting of the NDMA [on disaster management]?"
The NDMA member replied that five meetings had been held, and when asked if any opposition members had requested for a meeting, his answer was in the negative.
The judge further questioned if the NDMA director general had ever requested the prime minister to convene a meeting, to which he was informed that a meeting had been requested during the pandemic.
"The law is present. If it was implemented, then no life would have been lost. It is such a strong law that it accords responsibility to every district. Did the NDMA identify those responsible [for the tragedy]?" Justice Minallah asked as he grilled the official.
When the official replied that it was the responsibility of the provincial governments, the chief justice berated him and said: "Then you did not read the NDMA law properly."
"The opposition leader, prime minister of Azad Kashmir and chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan are also members of this body. If the prime minister did not call for a meeting then no one else did so either?
"What plan did you make for Murree or Rawalpindi districts? It was the responsibility of the NDMA to have regular meetings. Lack of meetings is a failure of NDMA," Justice Minallah said.
"The NDMA is responsible if the commission did not have a meeting. The chief ministers of all provinces are present in the commission as well."
Justice Minallah reprimanded the official for putting the blame on the provinces in front of the court and said that there wasn't even a need for any inquiry in the case.
"The NDMA is responsible. If meetings weren't being held then you should have informed. If the law were followed then this accident would not have happened."
Justice Minallah directed the NDMA member to ask the prime minister to call a meeting of the authority and identify those responsible. "Every member of the commission is responsible for this incident," the judge reiterated.
"God forbid if those were your children then what would you have done? Who would you have blamed?" the chief justice admonished the NDMA official.
The IHC ordered for the prime minister to call a session of the National Disaster Management Commission next week and the NDMA to submit a report on the commission's behalf to the court by Jan 21.
The court also directed the commission to inquire why the provisions of the NDMA Act were not implemented, reasons behind the Rawalpindi District Management Authority remaining non-functional and whether a district plan covering Murree was prepared.
The commission was further instructed to identify reasons for the non-implementation of the district plan, the court's written order said.
"The commission, after fixing responsibility of officials/entities involved in failure to implement the provisions of the NDMA Act, shall make them accountable by proceeding in accordance with law," the order further stated.
It added that the commission should also probe "the lack of preparedness and lack of response" that led to the loss of lives and then tack action as required under the law.