LAHORE - The Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Ordinance seems more of an experiment than a bid to introduce transparency by which the public could know about the functioning of various departments.
The proclaimed objectives (of the Ord) however are that the people would be able to have an oversight over government decisions, spending, appointments, efficiency of its officers, transfers, postings, allocation of contracts and funds, and several other matters that relate to governance.
The promulgation of the Ordinance has invited strong reaction from political and legal circles as well as civil society. They question why such an important piece of legislation has been brought through the Ordinance instead of the Assembly, for which the Opposition has also tendered a move.
The Ordinance appears to have been introduced without due study and homework. It has been introduced in haste by the Punjab government because Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has already put the same legislation in place on August 22.
Public right to information is mandatory in terms of Article 19-A of the Constitution, which reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance, subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”
It may be mentioned here that the provincial governments have been fulfilling the constitutional requirement after this law was enforced at the federal level in 2002, by the then government.
It is credit of the last PML-N government in Punjab that the cabinet had then approved the draft of the “Access to Information” a few days before the dissolution of the provincial assembly after lasting its tenure.
The draft was markedly different from the present law and it was highly appreciated in media.
From the past and present, we see Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as a staunch champion of transparency , merit and fair play in every sphere; therefore, he had strongly supported the idea of putting all necessary information on official websites. Information is now available for public perusal on official websites.
However, it still has been short of meeting the demand of the constitutional provision for which the Ordinance has been brought in, and would need to be put before the House during its 90-day life to make it a permanent law or reject it with the majority vote.
Given PML-N’s strength in the House, the Ordinance may conveniently become a law, but in the existing form it would continue to be contentious and an eye sore for the people as well as the Opposition. The major irritation is the bureaucratic dominance. This also gives rise to question, how the baboos would stoop to reveal to the public their own misdoings and wrongs, if they exist anywhere.
For deciding which information merits to be supplied to the seekers depends on the choice of the Commission whose members will be named by the chief minister.
The commission would scrutinize the applications and do the needful within 14 days or in case of rejecting the plea; it would give in black and white the reasons why it was refusing the request.
The medium of information could have been simplified and made transparent, if departments and the areas of the information would have been specified instead of leaving the whole matter to the sweet-will of the bureaucrats and the Commission. The sensitive and classified information would have been automatically denied and rightful easily and promptly available to the applicants.
Although the official quarters describe the legislation self-contained and sufficient, it was silent on the action if information is deliberately refused. What protection to the recipient of information is available if he transmits the same to others and what action would be taken against the person he exposes, finds no mention in the law.
The Commission has been authorized to remove inconsistencies in the Ordinance but no rules have been prescribed to carry out the job. Moreover, the constitutional and fundamental right of resorting to the court of law on being punished under the Ordinance has also been denied. This is contrary to the basic concept of criminal justice system.
Meanwhile, Opposition members including Sardar Waqas Hassan Moakal, Aamir Sultan Cheema and Sardar Asif Nakai and others have outrightly rejected the Ordinance. They say it has been issued with ill intentions to deny the people information. They have decided to mount protest against the Ordinance with support of parliamentarians, media, civil society and social and political circles.
The MPAs say there are many ambiguities in the ordinance which they would also point out on the floor of the House. They say it is worrisome that the Punjab government in the legislation of public welfare was ignoring the Constitution, popular wishes and democratic values. They say earlier the government made mockery of the Constitution and democratic traditions in the Local Government Bill Punjab and now through the Right to Information Ordinance. They say the government will not be allowed to take arbitrary decisions.