Thar deaths: Provincial govt to nominate members for judicial commission

Previous attempts to form a commission to probe the issue were unsuccessful


The formation of a judicial commission keeps getting delayed while infants in Thar hospitals fight for their lives. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

KARACHI: The Sindh High Court (SHC) sought on Wednesday the provincial government’s response to a proposal to establish a commission, comprising independent members, to probe the causes of the high mortality rate in the drought-hit areas of the province.

Headed by SHC Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, the division bench directed the additional advocate-general to seek instructions from the provincial government and inform the court by February 17. The bench was hearing identical petitions filed by NGOs seeking a judicial probe into the deaths of nearly 200 people, most of whom were minor children, in the drought-hit areas of Thar. It was also pleaded that the commission may fix responsibility of such deaths on the officials, who demonstrated negligence in adopting pre-emptive measures ahead of the calamity.

However, a group of NGOs, including the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research and the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, along with human rights activist Javed Burki challenged the commission’s formation. The petitioners recalled that they had proposed the formation of a commission for the same purpose when the drought struck the province earlier last year.

Considering this request, the SHC had on April 11, 2014, directed the petitioners, federal and provincial governments to suggest a composition of the proposal and the parameters of its mandate. On December 6, 2014, the Sindh government had formed a new commission, comprising retired judges Ghulam Sarwar Korai and Anand Ram Talreja, to investigate the causes of the Thar crisis and offer recommendations to manage it.

The petitioners alleged that the chief secretary had, however, formed such a commission instead of offering a proposal to the court, which had, according to them, been described as an attempt to subvert the judicial order.

On April 29, the SHC had suspended the operation of the notification on the inquiry commission’s formation and initiated proceedings on the contempt plea against the chief secretary.

The petitioners had claimed that, on December 4, the two judges had reserved their verdict on the contempt plea but the Sindh government issued a statement on December 6 regarding the formation of another so-called commission to look into the Thar tragedy. The formation of the commission, a day after the SHC reserved its order on the issue, was “clearly an attempt to subvert and interfere with and prejudice the due course of judicial proceedings in this case,” alleged the petitioners.

The court was pleaded to suspend the directives or notifications for the formation of the commission and also restrain the respondents from taking any steps in relation to such directives till the petition was pending.

During Wednesday’s proceedings, the petitioners’ lawyer, Faisal Siddiqui, said more children had died in recent days but the government was failing to mitigate the problem. He suggested that the commission, as suggested by the petitioners to mitigate the situation in Thar and fix responsibility on the relevant officials, be formed comprising notables, such as Hameed Haroon, etc.

On the court’s query regarding the petitioners’ proposal, the additional advocate-general, Ghulam Mustafa Mahesar, said the Sindh government had already formed a committee, headed by Senator Taj Haider, to look into the issues in Thar and address them. The senator frequently visits the drought-affected areas and is efficiently supervising the relief activity there, the AAG added.

He opposed, however, the petition stating that final arguments in the case had already been made therefore there was no need to further proceed with the matter. The judges asked the law officer to take instructions from the provincial government regarding proposal to form a commission, comprising independent persons. Allowing AAG’s request for time, the bench directed him to file comments by February 17.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th,  2016.

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