LAHORE - Punjab is no different from other provinces as far as right to information is concerned. Here too we have a law on the subject but citizens mostly fail in getting information they seek from public departments.

The ‘good-intentioned’ legislature passed the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act (2013) but it remains limited to paper as mighty provincial departments are making a mockery of their great feet.

The Nation made an effort to gauge on-ground implementation of this law and found disappointing results. In many cases the complainants seeking information through this law were effectively denied their right, let alone imposition of penalties on the responsible officials under the law.

Saying ‘no’ to the information seeker is a big question mark on the face of provincial government claiming transparency on every level. The political hierarchy should make it clear if bureaucracy was causing this hindrance on its own or with their connivance, as is the public impression.

When this correspondent contacted some information seekers who sought certain information under Right to Information (RTI) Act, it came to surface that the departments concerned interpreted the act as per their own wishes and denied information.

One of the petitioners told The Nation that both the S&GAD and the C&W departments had failed to provide him information. He said he sought details of dual nationality holder bureaucrats working in Punjab and their assets in the country and abroad from the S&GAD, but to no avail. The C&W Department flatly refused his request saying the information could not be shared under the relevant clause of RTI Act, he added.

Another petitioner, Khalid Khattak sought information under RTI Act from the secretary schools about the policy regarding adoption of public schools, but School Education Department (SED) has failed to furnish the information despite lapse of over five months. On his approaching the Punjab Information Commission against the SED, the commission directed for provision of relevant information but even that order fell on flat ears.

The petitioner said that this bad experience has shattered the image of RTI Act he had in mind. After the promulgation of this law, it was expected that corruption-ridden public bodies would be held accountable, but what he has gone through has disappointed him. If the law fails at the initial stage of its implementation, how it could help materialise the dream of transparency, he questioned.

The mighty bureaucracy that runs affairs of the government seems in no mood to allow implementation of the law in its true spirit. The departments are not only found guilty of overlooking this law but also misguiding the sister organisations by giving wrong information, as was done in the case of C&W officers’ promotion to BS-19. The C&W concealed the fact that the officers faced FIRs and corruption inquiries.

When the CM office took notice of it, the Chief Minister’s Inspection Team (CMIT) confirmed fraud in the process of promotion of the officers. The inspection team found several officials of ACE and the Communication Department responsible for sending the names of eight executive engineers to the provincial selection board for their promotions despite the fact they were ineligible for it due to the cases they were facing.

Some experts observed that when the province passed access to information law it was believed that the days for doing corruption and misusing powers by the public servants were gone, but what happened afterwards is disappointing. They said that effective implementation of this law would boost revenue collection and curb kickbacks and ‘commission culture’.

Many countries have passed access to information laws to boost public awareness and build people’s trust in the government. Besides western democracies, eastern countries like Philippines, Thailand, Japan and South Korea have also adopted such laws and experienced transparency in the public affairs.

As reported by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), Punjab Information Commission has directed the Punjab Assembly to display the attendance record of all MPAs on its website. So far the information was being denied on the frivolous ground of the privacy of public representatives.

If the law fails to penalise those hindering access to information unlawfully delaying it, the fate of RTI Act in Punjab would not be different from Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006 and Balochistan Freedom of Information Act 2005 that have proven to be toothless.

The first punishment under this law, announced by the provincial Information Commissioner, was deduction of two-month salary of an executive district officer (EDO) of Vehari and recommendation of disciplinary action against him. The applicant had sought the copy of an inquiry against him and seniority lists of teachers under the law but the EDO did not respond. The punishment process must be sped up if government is sincere in implementation of this law.