• IHC told apex disaster preparedness body hasn’t met since Mar 2018
• Complete record of Murree hotels not available since lapse of tourism ordinance
ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court on Thursday observed that it was a failure of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) that led to the deaths of at least 22 tourists – including nine children – in Murree after it emerged that the country’s apex disaster preparedness body had not met to formulate a national strategy during the tenure of the current government.
The court warned that it would have to summon the NDMA chief and the prime minister’s principal secretary in case a meeting of the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC) was not convened before Jan 21, the date of the next hearing.
Separately, the committee formed to probe the Murree tragedy perused the data of local hotels and guest houses and examined the record provided by the communication and works, highway mechanical and forest departments as well as the Met Office and Rescue 1122.
However, it was noted that following the lapse of the Punjab Tourists Guides Amendment Ordinance 2020, there was no complete record of all hotels and hospitality establishments in Murree.
High court hearing
On Thursday, during the hearing of a petition filed by Murree resident Hammad Abbasi, it was revealed that the NDMC, headed by the prime minister, had not met during the term of the current government to thrash out a strategy to cope with likely challenges posed by natural calamities.
When Justice Minallah asked NDMA Member Mohammad Idrees Mehsud whether the commission had met recently, he replied in the negative.
The last meeting of the body was held in March 28, 2018, when the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz was in government.
The commission, chaired by the prime minister, consists of the leaders of the opposition in the SenateandNational Assemblythe ministers for defence, health,foreign affairs,social welfare and special education, communications, finance and interiorthe governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and chief ministers of all provinces, as well as the chief executives of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee or his nominee, and civil society representatives.
The court observed that the tragic deaths were obviously due to a lack of response of public functionaries and institutions, terming it a failure of “disaster management” as defined under section 2(c) of the NDMA Act, adding that it was evident that the commission was in “dereliction of [its] statutory duty”.
“It also appears that there was no response from the District Disaster Management Authority, which was required to have been established under the statute. It also appears that there was either no ‘district plan’ as contemplated under section 21 of the NDMA Act and, if it existed, then there was no preparedness nor response,” Justice Minallah stated in the order.
He concluded that “There was a complete collapse of the statutory mechanism mandated under the NDMA Act.”
The court admitted the petition for regular hearing and directed the NDMA to request the PM to call an urgent meeting of the NDMC and conclude the proceedings before Jan 21, the next date of hearing.
“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 said.
It also called on the NDMC to probe the “lack of preparedness and response, which led to the traumatic loss of precious lives, including nine children and take such action as required under the law.”
However, the NDMA representative was not sure whether the provincial disaster management authorities had held meetings, nor was he aware whether the District Disaster Management Authority of Rawalpindi was notified and functional.
Justice Minallah said it was ironic that the NDMA member was trying to divert blame on the Punjab administration.
According to the court order, “Even if the Province of Punjab or Punjab Disaster Management Commission had failed to notify the Rawalpindi District Management Authority or make a district plan, NDMA cannot absolve itself of being responsible.”
Separately, Murree-based lawyer Advocate Obaid Abbasi has filed an application before the Supreme Court asking the chief justice of Pakistan to take a suo motu notice of the Murree tragedy.
Separately, the committee formed by Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar to probe the Murree tragedy on Thursday recorded the statement of Rawalpindi City Police Officer Sajid Kiani. The body had also called Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Ali, however he failed to appear due to illness.
According to a senior official, the committee had called the supervisory tier of the district to record their statements. Senior officials informed the body about the deployment of administration staff and police in the hill station the efforts made to control the influx of tourists.
However, a senior PTI leader told Dawn that while the Punjab government had issued three ordinances in 2020 to improve tourism and register all the hotels in Murree and other areas of the province, the ordinances lapsed in June 2021 and from then on, this process remained unchecked.
He claimed that it was due to this that Punjab chief minister’s former adviser for tourism, Asif Mehmood, resigned from his post as he believed the law department did not present the ordinances before the Punjab Assembly in time. The ordinances were meant to regulate hotels and oversee the formation of a tourist police to facilitate tourists in hill station in case of any untoward incident.
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2022