Are public records safe? The answer is a big no; they are totally vulnerable and exposed to infernos of all kinds. There was a time that the historic city of Lahore was known for its record keeping. The civil secretariat, district courts, session courts, high court, Municipal Corporation, rehabilitation and settlement department had functional record rooms were important documents were safely stored. The treasury in the district courts had several vaults resembling the ones shown in famous ‘James Bond’ thrillers, but then everything changed. In the nineties the infernos started.
The easiest way to grab property is by destruction of records. Land grabbers or ‘Qabza Group’ have been very active in these man-made infernos. There was a big fire when the Deputy Commissioners’ (DC) office was set ablaze during a protest in the city over sectarian killings. After burning the record room in the district courts the mob then attacked the building of the Metropolitan Corporation Lahore (MCL) on the Mall, the officers and staff fought back. There was aerial firing together with tear gas shelling to disperse the crowd. The bravery paid off and the records were saved. No such resistance was offered at the DC’s Office. No inquiry was conducted and the entire building was quickly restored but without the records. It did not stop here; the record room at Faridkot House was then set ablaze creating serious problems for the allottees of evacuee property. For the owners possessing original documents, the rehabilitation and settlement department was unable to verify them as their record did not exist.
This late twentieth century mischief has continued unabated in the twenty first. The fire at LDA Plaza on Edgerton Road reduced the Metro Bus project record to ashes together with important departmental papers. Again no inquiry was conducted and the issue was hushed up. The next inferno was at the University of Education store near the district courts where election record of Saad Rafique’s constituency (NA-125) was stored while the tribunal was deliberating the case
National Accountability Bureau (NAB) pre-empted the inferno mischief at their Lahore office by posting Rangers instead of the Punjab Police. Ashiana Housing Scheme inquiry will now proceed with the relevant record to ‘NAB’ the culprits. Their old tricks have been exposed. No wonder the loyal bureaucracy of Punjab is seriously concerned about their future.
The National Shipping Corporation (NSC) building in Karachi is also notorious for its annual infernos with MQM being the beneficiary of this crime. Both PML-N in Punjab and MQM in Karachi have many similarities. First it was Altaf Hussain’s turn to be shown the door, followed by Nawaz Sharif. Hopefully the infernos will now be checked.
In the seventies I met an American student who was conducting research on the ancient land records of Punjab. He regularly visited the Civil Secretariat where the record was kept in the central building. Renovations were then carried out and the record has since been dumped in the Mausoleum of Anarkali located inside the premises. This shows insensitivity of the people who now run the provincial set up, where only loyalty and obedience to the boss has become the norm.
Civilised societies preserve their records as they provide a link to the past. Destruction of records through man-made infernos is a serious crime which should not go unpunished. Due to the burning of its important papers the city of Lahore and its inhabitants are in serious trouble. One visit to the district court record room or Faridkot House on Mozang Road reveals the public distress. It is time to first restore and then preserve all important public records in major cities of the country.
The old State Bank building which is now the Supreme Court Registry of Lahore did have proper vaults and record rooms. Record keeping in most government departments including the courts is primitive. Non-existing record cannot be computerized. Infernos have been deadly. A national commission should be formed to investigate these mischievous fires and then propose way forward first for the restoration of records and then suggest modern methods of its preservation. This nineteenth century record keeping which is exposed to arson cannot work in the present times.
Rangers can only provide short term protection of records; they cannot become its keeper. If NAB cannot prosecute the accused without protection no other department can function. The state becomes non-functional without records; the infernos are a conspiracy against Pakistan and its people. Now that the political cleansing has started, it should not stop here, correction of records should follow. The country is dysfunctional without proper documentation. The rulers may not feel the pinch of this serious shortcoming but the people are suffering for no fault of theirs, it is the state that has failed in maintaining its records, in fact it went to the extent of destroying it. The officers who defended the records at MCL were ignored while the ones who allowed the inferno at the district courts flourished and rose to the heights of bureaucracy first as Chief Secretary and then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister which clearly indicates complicity of the rulers. Certainly all is not well in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, without records it is a perfect scenario of the blind leading the blind with circles all around and no way out. It calls for an SOS message for help.
The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation.