Resistance to the Information Act

The bureaucracy of Pakistan remains shrouded in the Government of India, Official Secrets Act 1923. The colonists desired to protect their anti-people activities of loot and plunder of natural resources of their colonies. The colonial masters were not answerable to their subjects. Despite getting our freedom in August 1947, the state of Pakistan has been secretive of its acts. Pakistan attained the status of a constitutional democracy on August 14, 1973 yet the Government of India Act 1930 is widely quoted in administrative and legal matters. In modern management it is widely believed that ‘mystery is mischief’. With the advent of the information age, the hoarding of information is a highly objectionable offence. In a world driven by technology, data is vital for correct and timely decisions. Information is a fundamental right of the citizen that can no longer be denied.

Pakistan inherited this closed and unaccountable system. The founding fathers were aware of the serious lopsided shortcomings of the colonial structure and provided relief to the common man, but after their fading away, evil came back with full vengeance. My multi-talented friend, Javed Jabbar has played a pivotal role in ensuring the free flow of information. In the year 2002, as Minister of Information, he enacted the ‘Right to Information Act’. Unfortunately, it fell through the cracks due to lack of constitutional support. Then came the Charter of Democracy (COD) which was signed in London by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in which the Right to Information was recognised. Then Comrade Raza Rabbani skilfully included the Act in the 18th constitutional amendment which was passed by the parliament in the year 2010. The elected government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf took the lead by establishing the first information commission in the year 2013, which was then followed by the formation of the Punjab Information Commission in December the same year. The federal government, in the year 2017, established the Pakistan Information Commission. I have personally interacted with the commissions in Lahore and Islamabad with my city taking the lead in providing the much needed information but with firm resistance from the bureaucracy. I have sat through several hearings skilfully conducted by the Chief Information Commissioner, Mehboob Qadir Shah Sahib, who is a retired Sessions Judge by profession and an activist by descent and temperament.

Under the act, every government department is mandated to have a Principal Information Officer (PIO) to deal and interact with the public for the free flow of information. There is a fourteen-day deadline in which the requested information has to be provided by the department, failing which the applicant can approach the Commission for a hearing. The appointment of PIO’s by most departments is not taken seriously despite being a mandated legal requirement. In every hearing that I have attended, a different person appears before the Commission, resulting in unnecessary delays. There is an evident lack of seriousness within the bureaucracy. I suggest that the Commission sets a deadline for the appointment of PIOs in all departments followed by audits and fines in case of non-compliance. There is a famous proverb ‘taking the bull by the horns’. The bureaucracy in Pakistan has acted like an out of control ‘bull’ which has to be tamed by holding its horns. The bureaucracy has defied all attempts at reforms including the most recent efforts by Dr Ishrat Hussain. The Information Act is a big step in the restoration of citizen’s rights, which has to be implemented in letter and spirit. The appointment and positioning of PIOs has to be ensured for the success of this crusade for the people.

From 2002, when the first Right to Information bill was conceived till today, a lot of water has flown under the bridge in two decades, yet the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan continue to suffer mainly due to a lack of the much-needed information which can result in relief. Historically speaking, in the 1972 Interim Constitution, Article 212 was inserted for the formation of Administrative Accountability Courts. In the 1973 permanent document, a toned down version was included as Article 216, which was finally removed in 1979 by the third usurper, leaving the masses at the mercy of the bureaucracy. More than half of civil litigation today is a direct result of bureaucratic abuse which can be contained with effective and responsive information commissions that are now in place at the federal and provincial levels. As a finishing note, while the largest province of the federation has the worst performing bureaucracy when it comes to relief to the public, it is blessed with the most vibrant Information Commission to contain the ‘bulls’ to squeeze information from them. With the flow of information, relief will definitely follow, ending the ‘Colonial Era’ and its Official Secrets Act of 1923 together with the Government of India Act of 1930. The unanimously agreed constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has to be followed to ensure citizen’s rights together with access to information as and when desired.

The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation, email: fmaliks@hotmail.com

Inform-ation is a fundam-ental right of the citizen that can no longer be denied.

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