LAHORE: A segment of the Punjab bureaucracy, at the first stage of implementation of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act (2013), thwarted the efforts of the government to provide information to citizenry to have transparency in the system.
The departments interpreted the act on their own and denied information, a petitioner said. Tariq told this correspondent that he had filed two applications under the new act in the S&GAD and the C&W departments, but both of them met the same fate. He said he sought information from the S&GAD about dual nationality holding senior bureaucrats and their assets in the country and abroad. But the department has so far not bothered to share any information with him, he said. Through another petition filed with the C&W Department, he sought information about those officers who were found involved in embezzlement of public funds. But this was turned down by the authorities after a month or so, saying the information could not be shared under the relevant clause of RTI 2013.
Expressing disappointment over such responses, he said the image of the law he developed in his mind was badly tattered and he thought the mighty bureaucracy that runs affairs of the government would never allow implementation of the law in its true spirit. He questioned if the law fails at the initial stage of its implementation, how it would materialise the dreams of transparency in the public funds and boost democracy.
After the promulgation of Right to Information Act, it was expected that corruption-oriented public bodies would be brought to justice, but the denial of the basic right to share fundamental information by the S&GAD and the C&W Department gave a different picture altogether, the applicant lamented.
The departments are not only found guilty of overlooking law, but also misguide the sister organisations by giving wrong information as done in the case of C&W officers promoted 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 in its inquiry 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 not eligible for it due to the cases they were facing.
A senior officer of the Punjab government awaiting his posting said that out of Punjab’s total ADP to the tune of Rs 345 billion, the C&W budget for the current fiscal year is Rs 32 billion. “If transparency and accountability are to be boosted in the arena of democracy, what’s wrong with sharing details of billions of rupees project with public? Why can’t the information about successful bids and procurement processes be available? If the information is made available, it becomes more difficult for officials to engage in unfair practices,” he observed.
When the province passed access to information law, it was thought that the days for doing corruption and misusing powers were gone, but what happened was abysmal. He said by sharing information with the public, revenue collection could be increased while kickbacks and commission culture could be curtailed. Many countries are passing access to information laws to boost public awareness and deepen trust among people and government, he held. In addition to many western democracies, eastern countries like Philippines, Thailand, Japan and South Korea have also adopted such laws and experienced transparency in the public fund spending.
If the law fails to impose penalty on the public body head for unlawfully delaying access to information, the fate of RTI 2013 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.
If officials are allowed non-compliance with the law by hiding or destroying records, the commission will not be permitted to start functioning properly; if governments systematically abuse access rights, the commissioners may be overwhelmed with appeals thus straining their ability to resolve complaints promptly.
When contacted, newly established Information Commission member and former DIG, Ahmad Raza Tahir, said poor public access to information gives rise to corruption and secrecy allows backdoor deals to determine public spending in the interest of the few rather than the many. He said the provincial government had passed budget for hiring office and other expenditures. Initially, officers would be posted on deputation to run the commission affairs, he added. The rules and regulations have been formulated and forwarded to the departments concerned, the commission member held. He said the commission has started working, but with hiring of a proper office it would do the same formally. He said the online system of redress would be introduced to facilitate the citizens.