State responsible for Murree tragedy: IHC

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—-Directs PM to convene NDMA meeting, submit a report

Staff Report 

ISLAMABAD: Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Thursday held the state responsible for the tragedy in Murree last week in which at least 22 people lost their lives.

The high court was hearing a petition filed by a Murree resident, Hammad Abbasi, seeking an investigation into the tragedy and action against those responsible,

The petitioner prayed that the tourists were not informed of the hazard at the toll plaza before entering the hill station and were neither stopped from proceeding further by the authorities.

Turning his attention towards members of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) who were present at the hearing, the IHC chief justice asked who was responsible for the deaths as the parliament had earlier enacted the Disaster Management Law.

“It was supposed to be implemented since 2010. Has there ever been a meeting [on the subject] of National Disaster Management till date?” the judge asked.

An NDMA member replied that one meeting was held on February 21, 2013, and the second meeting was held on March 28, 2018.

“Had the meetings been held regularly and adequate preparations been made, precious lives would not have been lost. It is unfortunate; you have failed. It was your responsibility to convene the meeting. Given the management plan, you had to implement this law. If this law had been implemented, not a single citizen would have died,” the justice said while expressing his displeasure at the NDMA.

The IHC chief justice added that in this case, there was no need for an inquiry, as only the NDMA had to implement the law and further said that if district-wise plans existed, the tragedy would not have occurred.

He also wondered what the fault of the locals in Murree was, as everyone was trying to pin the blame on them.

Justice Minallah further asked the NDMA members to convene a meeting of the commission today and take action against those who were responsible.

“The NDMA has not fulfilled its responsibility. It could not inform if a district-wise plan existed or not for the past 11 years.”

He added that hotels would not have overcharged and neither would the locals of the hill station been blamed if plans were in place to deal with untoward incidents.

The court also instructed the prime minister to call a meeting of the commission and determine those responsible for the tragedy.

The NDMA member said that the law clearly stated that there was a set of responsibilities at the central, provincial and district levels.

On this, the chief justice remarked that the state was responsible for the deaths that occurred.

“If the National Commission meeting was not held after 2018, then you are responsible for this. Write to the PM today to convene a meeting on the commission,” further stated the IHC.

The premier was also instructed to submit a report to the court after the meeting of the NDMA Commission. The case was then adjourned till January 21.

Administrative flaws

The initial findings of the five-member committee to investigate the causes and lapses that led to the tragedy in Murree have pointed to the failure of relevant government departments to take preemptive measures in light of the warnings issued by the Met Office.

The metrological department in its advisory, issued on January 6, had deemed the weather unsafe with clear forewarnings about an imminent snowstorm, directing the concerned departments to block the roads leading to the tourist spot – the site of the tragic incident that claimed 22 lives on January 9.

“All authorities concerned are particularly advised to remain ‘alert’ during the forecast period,” the Met Office had stated.

The advisory had called for precautionary measures and asked the authorities to brace up for heavy snowfall. In addition, sources privy to the preliminary findings of the inquiry committee said that the report has also identified a range of other causes that resulted in the tragic incident, including the failure to formulate a joint plan of action to prevent a crisis following the warnings by the Met Office.

The committee discovered that the relevant departments, including district administration and disaster management authorities, did not coordinate to formulate a joint plan of action to prevent a crisis following the severe weather warnings issued by the Met office.The probe also uncovered that the measures were not taken to regulate the influx of tourists and traffic inflow into the resort town of Murree.

The committee also found that the authorities did not stop the entry of vehicles into Murree after the town reached its parking capacity. The contingency plan was not prepared to deal with a crisis situation, and preventive measures such as putting the vehicle-lifters on alert and deploying the traffic police were not taken.

Each year, during the snowfall season, eight to nine snowfall camps are set up for the placement of heavy machinery and additional personnel are deployed in different areas before the entry of tourist vehicles. However, no such measure had been taken this year.