THERE is no shortage of complaints against government departments in Pakistan. Yet it is not always clear to whom citizens should turn so that they can lodge their complaints for meaningful action. The institution of the federal ombudsman, however, was designed to address this concern; its raison d’être is to deal with complaints regarding maladministration in the federal government. Hence it is welcome that Salman Faruqui, secretary general to the president, has been given temporary charge of the institution. The post of ombudsman had been lying vacant for two years, ever since the last occupant left office. As a result, the institution had become dormant.
In fact, some 75,000 complaints have piled up in the last two years as the approval of the ombudsman is required for the resolution of grievances; meanwhile, it is distressing to hear that because of the absence of an ombudsman many foreign agencies have withdrawn support to the institution. The office of ombudsman has much potential and was well-received by the public when it was first set up. Though it is not an alternative to the courts, it has the potential to take part of the burden off the legal system. Its promises are attractive. For example, the institution’s charter says it will accept or reject a complaint within 24 hours, while it will try and resolve grievances within three to six months. In a legal system that is notoriously slow, where the backlog of cases in court is said be in hundreds of thousands and where decisions can take years, this is relatively quick justice. Also, the ombudsman looks into complaints free of cost, which is a big plus for citizens who cannot afford lawyers or court costs. Yet the office does have its limits, as it does not accept complaints regarding matters related to defence or which are sub-judice or other issues concerning external affairs.
If the federal ombudsman remains inactive, people will have no option but to take their grievances to court, thus putting further stress on an already overloaded system. Its reactivation is positive, but has come a bit late in the day, even if Mr Faruqui is a capable individual. The institution must be assigned a permanent head while it must be ensured that it does not go into hibernation the next time the person in charge leaves midway or retires after completing his tenure. The presidency must not be slow to name a new ombudsman when the time comes. What the federal and provincial ombudsmen need to do is to publicise the institution to let people know where they can lodge their complaints regarding the workings of the state.