Islamabad, September 28, 2012: Government departments need to be obligated through right to information laws to proactively disclose information pertaining to issues of public importance as well as provide such information when it is demanded by citizens. Insertion of Article 19-A into the Constitution through 18th Amendment declaring right to information a fundamental right is a welcome step but federal and provincial governments have not enacted information laws. These views were expressed by speakers in conference on ‘Politics of Right to Information Legislation’, held by Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) in connection with 10th right to Information Day, in a local hotel in Islamabad. Raja Muhammad Shafqat Khan Abbassi, Chairman, Press council of Pakistan delivered the keynote speech wherein he stressed the need of continuous political commitment for effective legislation at all three tiers of government. Speaking on the occasion, CPDI representative Zahid Abdullah said that it is mind-boggling as to why none of the major political parties, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Awami National Party (ANP) and Motahida Qomi Movement (MQM) which have been in power for more than four years have not taken any meaningful steps to legislate on right to information. Sharing with media CPDI ‘Model right to Information Law’, Mr. Abdullah said that the model law could serve as a basic document for legislation on right to information as existing bills in Parliament like one introduced by Ms. Sherry Rahman private member bill does not meet standards of a an effective information law. Conference participants unanimously adopted resolution demanding the repeal of existing ineffective laws like Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 and its replicas in Sindh and Balochistan and urged the provincial and federal governments to enact new information laws after consulting civil society groups. Politicians at the conference, including Senator Haji Adeel (ANP), Siddique-ul-Faooq (PML-N), Senator Mir Hasil Khan Bezinjo (NP), and Naheed Begum (MQM) all agreed that culture of secrecy must be dismantled and that conference resolution would be shared with their respective parties so that firm advances could be made towards the actualization of Right to Information in the true spirit.
Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) has criticized the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) for ignoring effective legislation on Right to Information in the election manifesto. An analysis of the manifesto also revealed that it was drafted in haste and without any scientific research in the background.
Right to Information was conceded to the citizens in 2010 through 18th amendment to the constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Since then no meaningful attempt has been made by PMLN to pursue federal government for enactment of law. The Punjab, where PMLN was in power for last five years, such attempts were piecemeal, un-coordinated and were not made whole-heartedly and hence remained shy of any effective legislation. Even before the 18th amendment, the leadership of PMLN and PPP committed in Charter of Democracy (COD) to bring a legislation on Right to Information but that commitment was put in background after the 2008 elections. Despite repeated commitment of the PMLN leadership in different conferences and seminar, no meaningful and decisive steps were taken in this regard.
The other promises made in the manifesto are more a rhetoric than a reality. A lot of commitments have been made but their financial implications have not been calculated. The manifesto talks about the reduction of tax evasion but does not elaborate how the trend would be arrested with present rusted tax machinery of Pakistan. The increase in tax-to-GDP ratio from 9% to 15% would remain a forlorn hope with existing tax machinery and without adopting strict policy of tax collection. In countries with tax-to-GDP ratio as high as 15%, the vast majority of parliamentarians do not evade taxes as happens in Pakistan. A first step should have been the commitment from the party not to give tickets to any candidate who has a history o tax evasion. A more vivid party stance on broadening the tax base and taxing the agriculture sector should have been the part of the manifesto. This would give an opportunity to the voter to exercise its informed choice during the forthcoming election.
It was also suggested to reduce inflation by reducing the tax rate. While CPDI is not against the reduction of tax rates, the reduction without broadening the tax base will further decrease the tax revenue and economy would end up nowhere.
The manifesto also talks about reduction of current expenditure other than salaries and allowances. Such reductionwill have a direct effect on the operational budget of the government departments. While CPDI is by no means in favor of wasteful expenditure, at the same time question should be asked that whether we are in a position tofurther reduce the operational budget. Thenon-availability of sufficient operational budget has already turned our schools and hospitals into ruins and we cannot afford further de-generation of these facilities. One-third reduction in current budget, as committed in the manifesto, is not realistic.
One ludicrous commitment was local government election within six months of general elections. One wonder what hurdle to local government elections would be surpassed in six months that otherwise could not be overcome when party was in power in the Punjab. There should be someone in the party to explain that why PMLN failed to hold local government elections in the province?
Manifesto also highlights production of 10,000 MW of electricity but no reasons for the failure to produce a single MW in the Punjab was mentioned as provinces were allowed to mobilize their own resources to generate power.
The leadership of PMLN is requested to respond to these questions in greater details. People will continue to ask these questions from them during the election campaign.