LAHORE: The implementation of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act of 2013 faces hurdles such as the lack of finances and awareness among the public.

“There is a flood of information untapped in Punjab which should be used for research, governance, problem solution and so on, but the information seekers in the province of 100 millions still run in thousands,” said Mazhar Husain Minhas, chief information commissioner, at a briefing on Tuesday.

Mr Minhas heads the Punjab Information Commission, which was set up in 2014 to oversee the implementation of the law and redress grievances of those seeking information.

He said the information act was on a par with developed world’s information-related laws but it was not being fully utilised because of the hurdles. The commission has been facing the shortage of staff and funds since its inception in 2014. It has one assistant director and five daily wagers supporting staff. It’s budget was approved in October 2014 but the office could be functional in June 2015.

“Despite challenges, the commission drafted the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Rules, 2014, schedule of cost, guidelines for public information officers and transparency standards for the prison department,” he added.

The commission hears complaints from the people if they are denied information or provided distorted facts from the public bodies. Of the 1,800 complaints received so far, the commission has resolved 1,000, and in almost all cases, directed the public bodies to share information.

“Any institution, which is run on public exchequer directly or indirectly, is bound to share all sorts of information, except for someone’s private matters, with the public,” said information commissioner Mukhtar Ahmed Ali at the briefing. The commission has forced the reluctant staffers of Governor House, Chief Minister Secretariat, Punjab Assembly and Judicial Academy to share information with the seekers. He said the commission was emphasising on proactive information sharing approach, asking the departments to share information on their own.

Despite legal changes, the culture of secrecy persists in public bodies, and a big change is not likely to be brought out any soon. Several government departments have not appointed public information officers and their websites are not updated.

“Information is power and the public should seek more and more information from public bodies,” said Mr Mukhtar. He added the law protected the information seekers and in one case, when the authorities persecuted a teacher of Vehari for seeking information, the commission penalised the executive district officer.

The commission, despite helping people dig information, is clueless what is stopping the government from releasing funds for its staff and working.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2016