ISLAMABAD: Blaming the federal as well as Punjab governments for the Murree disaster, the joint opposition in the Senate on Tuesday demanded the formation of a judicial commission or a committee of the two chambers of Parliament to probe the tragedy and fix the responsibility.
A senator contended that if a helicopter could be made available to rescue the prime minister’s sister in Chitral, then why 23 persons died in the freezing cold, just 40-km away from the PM House, adding it showed that there were two Pakistan.
After the adoption of the House Standing Committee on Finance’s Report on the Money Bill, the senators spoke on the gory incident under an adjournment motion, moved by the opposition and MQM’s Senator Faisal Sabzwari.
During the discussion, the prime minister and the chief minister Punjab came under fire as well as the NDMA for their alleged negligence and indifference to the whole incident.
PPP’s Parliamentary Leader in the Senate Senator Sherry Rehman said the extremely tragic and heart-breaking incident took the lives of 23 innocent people, including nine children and the horrifying 12 dark hours of being stuck on the hill, adding the shocking reality is that this incident was completely preventable, if the government peddling tourism within the city had taken safety measures that are integral to every tourist destination in the world.
“Despite warnings from the Met Office, the authorities, including the PDMA, NDMA and the local administration, took no action and too many people perished in severe weather conditions. The government’s abdication of responsibility is breaching new limits.
The five-member committee to investigate this incident is unacceptable,” she asserted. She contended in times of such catastrophic climate disasters, an independent investigation is required to find out the criminal negligence of the authorities and give recommendations for future safety procedures and enforcement frameworks, adding this investigation is being specifically sought by the people of Murree.
According to the Met Office, she noted, Murree had received 17 inches of snow and the government had been informed about this dangerous storm, adding appropriate planning and safety procedures should have been put in place, but the authorities in Islamabad failed to issue appropriate traffic warnings or enforce road closures or even put the rescue teams on alerts. Instead the NDMA, PDMA, interior ministry and the provincial government had failed to demonstrate concern or take action to prevent chaos in one of the most visited tourism sites in Pakistan, she added.
“In the face of such a tragedy, how can the government blame the people and make a public statement, saying that they should have checked the weather. Do they not know it is the government’s responsibility to provide its citizens with safety and protection,” she said.
About the investigation of this incident, she said: “we must learn from our mistakes and minimise casualties resulting from extreme weather events in the future. It must be reiterated that a transparent and independent investigation is the need of the hour.”
“The Murree Highway is the responsibility of the National Highways Authority, what role did it play to prevent this disaster from happening? Did the minister for Communications, federal secretary Communications or chairman NHA convene a meeting on the snowstorm? What steps have been taken by the Motorway Police and the NHA to facilitate tourists and ensure their safety? The inquiry ordered by the prime minister must also investigate who did what before the Murree tragedy and during these crucial 12 hours. What role did the PDMA and NDMA play during and in the aftermath of this crisis? Why were they not held accountable?” she asked.
She continued that it is the job of the provincial secretaries of highways and local government to handle the snowfall situation in Murree and yet they also failed to implement any safety provisions. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Special Branch are considered the eyes and ears of the government. Do they perform any public service functions at all? Did the Intelligence Bureau and the Special Branch report to the prime minister and the Punjab chief minister that the arrangements of the administration and departments are incomplete? “The government needs to stop playing with the people’s lives. Victim blaming just hours after the tragedy is reprehensible and the government must apologise to the families of the victims and the people of this country,” she added.
Broaching the discussion, Leader of the Opposition Yusuf Raza Gilani said the deaths in Murree are the matter of concern of 22 million people of Pakistan and that those responsible for it, be held accountable. He pointed out every year, 6-8 camps were set up to cope with any emergency situation, while the related machinery parked near Sunni Bank remained unmoved despite the Met Office warning.
He demanded a judicial commission to look into the matter and that the justice should be seen being done and whosoever was responsible must be taken to task. He added the way these precious lives were lost had damaged Pakistan’s image abroad. He pointed out that the message from the Pope about the Murree tragedy was very alarming and should be taken seriously.
Leader of the House Dr Shahzad Waseem said that while the tourism had increased off late and a large number of people moved to Murree, the snowstorm caused many administrative and other issues and cited the instance of a US state, where a main highway remained closed for 24 hours due to extreme weather conditions.
He said when the storm was raging, the relief operation could not be carried out in full swing but it was undertaken in the US. “We need to learn from the incidents of suffocation in such situations,” he remarked.
Ex-chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani, in categorical terms, said that the administrative committee, formed on the incident, was completely rejected by the opposition as it is tantamount to an inquiry by own peers.
He said the committee lacked legal and statuary push vital to carrying out the required task. “If the committee seeks report and it is denied and summons someone who gives an incorrect statement, then it does not have the powers to punish him,” he said.
Rabbani said if the Punjab government had been serious, it would have formed a commission under the Punjab Inquiry Commission, 1969. He called for either formation of a judicial commission or a parliament committee to probe the tragedy to identify the responsible persons and recommend criminal proceedings against them.
JI Senator Mushtaq Ahmad called the 23 deaths a murder of hapless people and held the government squarely responsible for its total negligence, as it could have been averted by following the Met Office warning and asked what steps were taken by all the concerned authorities between January 7 and 8. He noted the federal and provincial governments were responsible for the incident.
He said a driver was quoted as saying that he could not move his snow-clearing vehicle as no diesel was available to run it. He regretted that the mafias had paralysed the poor tourists too.
Senator Mushtaq wondered where were those 3-4 mini garrisons and the major, army garrison. He read out the related portion from the NDMA law and asked where was this agency at that time of emergency and catastrophe and what was its response for a rescue operation? “NDMA is a white elephant, it must be held accountable,” he asserted while waving a copy of the NDMA act.
He also asked about the Tiger Force and wondered, had it been caged in a zoo that it could not face the challenge. “The PM has been often saying that on such tragedies resignations are tendered and we ask him, the prime minister, the chief minister and the interior minister to resign on the loss of 23 precious lives, including 10 children,” He also demanded a judicial committee on the tragedy.
PML-N’s Musadik Masood Malik said what was needed was a shovel and a person to clear snow from the silencer of vehicles to save lives but the cars became graves of poor helpless people, who had come to Murree only for sight-seeing.
Irfan Siddiqui of the PML-N said a judge of the Supreme Court should lead an inquiry into the incident and asked can the NDMA, headed by a general, be held accountable and wondered the prime minister would often say he would not spare the mafias, adding after finding out the mafias on his side, he would do nothing.
Senator Siddiqui contended the tragedy could have been prevented, had the government’s spokesmen been directed to go on air to advise the people not to visit Murree.
He rejected the committee of the government officials formed to investigate the tragedy, saying that assigning the task to those who should be in the dock was a joke. He regretted that instead of admitting failure in managing a preventable disaster, some ministers were adding fuel to the fire by making irresponsible statements and holding the victims responsible for their fate.
He also wondered if the rulers knew there was a law relating to the regulation of hotels and restaurants, ‘enacted’ in 1977 and asked was it enforced in Murree. He and Dr Asif Kirmani of the PMLN castigated the chief minister Punjab for taking an aerial view of Murree.
Senator Kirmani said the government, which relied on tweets, should have followed the tweets to prevent the tragedy from happening. “But there has been ‘andher nagri and chopat raaj’ in the country for the last four years and the people’s lives have been made miserable,” he added.
As the chair gave floor to State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan to wind up the discussion, saying already over two hours discussion had been held, the opposition insisted that some of its members wanted to speak on the Murree tragedy. However, when the minister rose to speak, the opposition senators walked out and then pointed out quorum. Later, the House was adjourned to resume on Friday morning.