ISLAMABAD: Following the footsteps of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, though Punjab government has introduced a Right to Information (RTI) law but DCOs and patwaris continue to deny public access to official record.
Exactly one year has gone by since the passing of Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 but the deep-rooted culture of secrecy is preventing the public from reaping the benefits of the landmark law.
While the KPK government has released detailed information about the bakery expenditure of the Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and complete record of his helicopter usage under the KPK RTI law, the Punjab ruling elites are not ready to divulge the same information despite repeated requests under the law.
According to sources, the Punjab Information Commission has received 570 complaints against senior bureaucrats of the province for withholding information since the promulgation of the RTI law. They said most of the complaints have been received against District Coordination Officers including some against patwaris and health department officials.
Not only that, the commission is still working without any office or staff, making it impossible for the watchdog to ensure implementation of the law in letter and spirit.Almost all departments of the Punjab government have failed to implement Section 4 of the Punjab Transparency and RTI Act 2013, which deals with proactive disclosure.
Under this section, all public bodies should proactively disclose their particulars of functions and duties; powers and functions of their officers and employees; norms and criteria set by the public bodies for the discharge of its functions; acts, ordinances, rules, regulations, notifications, circulars and other legal instruments being enforced, issued or used by the public body in the discharge of its functions.
These public departments are also bound by law to state categories of information being held by them – a description of their decision-making processes. They are also supposed to provide a directory of their officers and employees with their respective remuneration, perks and privileges and the budget details including details of all proposed and actual expenditures; facilities available with the public body for obtaining information held by it and name, designation and other particulars of the public information officer of the public body.
When contacted, Punjab Information Commissioner Mukhtar Ahmed Ali said contrary to the general perception, several achievements have been made by the province with regard to RTI law implementation.
He said the Punjab government has already released Rs98 million for the provincial commission and the process for hiring the office and staff has been initiated. He admitted that section 4 could not be fully implemented in the province but claimed that over 600 Public Information Officers have already been designated by the government to deal with RTI requests from the public.
“Yes we need to raise awareness and hold training sessions for the government officials to make them familiar with the law but we have already made a lot of progress,” he said adding that over 100 officers have been trained by the commission through six workshops. He said there are challenges in proactive disclosure by the public bodies, which include lack of computerised record and non-appointment of Public Information Officer (PIOs) by post.
“Some times the PIOs are promoted and transferred and the departments get no replacement so the commission has directed the public bodies to appoint them by post rather than by name,” he said.
The Information Commissioner said out of 570 complaints received against government officials for withholding information from public, 250 have been resolved through intervention of the commission.He said the commission has made some landmark decisions during last few months, which will pave the way for free flow of information in future.
On the complaint of a citizen the Commission has directed the District Coordination Officers (DCOs) to provide the vehicle logbook to general public under the RTI law. The DCOs had claimed that the said information is exempted under section 13 of the law, as its disclosure will undermine their security. However the commission ruled that the information is in public domain.
Also this year, the commission announced first punishment under the new Act when two months’ salary of EDO (Vehari) was forfeited for failing to provide the information within the prescribed time limit and for initiating inquiry against a teacher who had filed the information request.
The Commission has also ruled that the information about the assets of the government officials can be obtained by general public under the RTI law. But this order has been challenged in the Lahore High Court.
The Commission has also directed Secretary Punjab Assembly to provide minutes of the meeting of Departmental Promotion Committee (DPC) to an additional secretary of the assembly. Earlier the Secretary had claimed that the information could not be shared with his junior officer.