LAHORE - Despite a lapse of four years since the Punjab Assembly adopted the Right to Info Act, the Punjab Information Commission (PIO) established in 2013 could neither get financial autonomy nor service rules.

In its annual report, Information and Culture Secretary Raja Jahangir Anwar was informed that the commission is running short of funds and staff.

Outgoing Chief Information Commissioner Mazhar Hussain Minhas broke the silence just one day before his last day at the office (Friday).

In the report, the chief information commissioner pointed to the grey areas where government had failed to cooperate with the commission. He also gave recommendation to better the working of the commission.

Minhas told The Nation that one of the major hurdles in access to information was bureaucracy. “I worked in a challenging environment because the province was passing through a transition stage - from the culture of secrecy to the culture of transparency,” he informed.

“The way some officers have interpreted exception seems to be either because of poor competence level or high level of insecurity in their office work environment and consequent efforts to knowingly deny right to information on frivolous grounds,” he added.

The report reveals the government departments lacked record rooms to preserve and maintain the data and the same was told by the PIOs.

Moreover, it reflects that some time information provided to the citizens was wrong, misleading or denied wrongly citing the exceptions in the act.

“It was a wrong act and the commission could penalise such officials who provided wrong information,” the chief information commissioner stated.

The commission can impose up to 50,000 fine and refer the case of such an officer to the judicial magistrate and the administrative secretary for action under PEEDA Act 2006.

Minhas suggested the commission should be given powers to order implementation on its order and start contempt proceedings as other courts have.

Without citing an example, the officer shared the PIOs have complained that some citizens seek information to blackmail the officers.

The Governor House PIO and some others argued that matters relating to purchase of bakery items and gifts to dignitaries can’t be disclosed.

The Punjab Assembly PIO used the same stance saying that the attendance of MPAs could not be provided that it would harm the privacy interests.

After the inference of Commission, the information was provided. Likewise, the LHC Chief Justice made his salary and other privileges public on the direction of the commission and also designated the PIO in the court.

Mazhar Minhas further said the Punjab government curtailed commission’s budget for creating awareness from Rs30 million for 2014-15 to Rs 01m for 2015-16. He also gave his recommendations for improving the commission’s performance.

The commission had to fill this gap through NGOs, he asserted. All the public bodies didn’t designate PIOs, let alone making arrangements for their training.

Minhas said that on the government direction, the MPDD trained some 354 officers and next year it refused to do so saying it lacked funds. The Pildat and CPID were then engaged to train the government officers and the figure of trained officers reaches 800, he added.

Talking about sensitive cases in the commission, the CIO said that the information on chief executive’s foreign tours was sought which was not provided. On the direction of the commission, the PIO assured the commission that the Punjab government lacked the information of tours the CM made with the Prime minister. After seeking information from the federal government, the same would be provided to the citizen.

“The commission received about 4000 applications and disposed of 75 percent of them. About all the orders of commission were implemented by the government,” he claimed.

Although least interested in penalizing the officers for refusing information, in some cases, it punished three officers including two XENs of irrigation department and one EDO Education Vehari. The commission not only directed to deduct their salaries but also initiate proceedings under PEEDA Act 2006 against them.

About the next CIO, Minhas said he had no idea. He also disclosed his pay and perks, saying he draws MP1 scale salary Rs324,000 per month. Moreover, he draws Rs95,910 against monetisation, Rs142,000 for house rent, Rs16,100 for utility bills and medical allowance was equal to a grade-22 officer.

Former Addl IG and the information commissioners Malik Ahmad Raza Tahir will also retire on Friday. The third information commissioner Mukhtar Ahmad Ali will retire on 30th of April this year.

When contacted, the secretary said the names have not been finalised yet.