IF only good intentions could be translated into concrete actions, the functioning of the Punjab government would be more open and transparent and its bureaucrats and public bodies would be much more accountable to the people of Pakistan.
As the cliché goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. This is so true and applicable in the case of Punjab. The Punjab chief minister has repeatedly given expression to his good intentions and has made tall claims about good governance. However, in the absence of a provincial right to information law through which citizens could verify these claims by having access to documents pertaining to the functioning of the provincial government and the way public funds are being utilised, these claims lack legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
As a result of the persistent efforts of concerned citizens, the Punjab government has done some work in the shape of a draft law — the Punjab Freedom of Information Act 2010.
However, the Punjab government is dilly-dallying on the issue of turning this draft into law by putting it up in the provincial assembly for approval. What are the provincial government and bureaucracy afraid of?
Are they afraid of citizens coming to know how much funds are siphoned off from development schemes? Are they afraid of light being shed on files containing incidents of maladministration? Are they afraid of irrefutable documentary evidence coming to the fore showing how the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite and their cronies is supported by citizens of the province, financed by taxes paid through the nose?
There are many instances of such grandiose lifestyles but the scarcity of space warrants just one example: spend just one night in any ‘rest house’ and see how the ostentatious lifestyle of the provincial rulers, their wives, offspring, siblings, relatives and cronies is being subsidised by the poor of the province.
On a tangent, our civil, military and political elite has built these rest houses where they ‘rest’ when they are tired of (mis)ruling us, where they are fed at the expense of the poor.
Their energies thus revitalised, they start (mis)ruling us with a vengeance. This is why laws pertaining to the right to information are important as they provide us evidence about the deeds of elected and public representatives — evidence that is strong enough to withstand the rigours of any court of law.
Power and information are intrinsically linked. The greater hold on information and its resources means a greater level of emasculation of power and secrecy in the way it is wielded.
In other words, the democratisation of information or free flow of information in the public domain results in the sharing of power and knowledge about the way it is exercised. That is why ruling elites everywhere in the world have resisted the enactment of the right to information laws.
In this backdrop, flimsy as it may sound, the excuse offered by Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister, for not enacting Punjab’s right to information law is hardly surprising. At a seminar held in Islamabad some time ago, he told the audience that the Punjab government is awaiting the enactment of a federal information law so that the provincial information law could be enacted in line with the spirit of the federal law.
Is the Punjab government incapable of enacting an effective right to information law for its 100 million citizens? Now that Article 19A has been inserted in the constitution, the right to information is a constitutional right of the citizens of Pakistan. Instead of offering lame excuses, the Punjab government should enact a right to information law which can serve as a role model for other provinces as well as the federal government. In this regard, the draft freedom of information law can be a good starting point. In its title, it should be referred to as the Punjab Right to Information Act and not as the Punjab Freedom of Information Act as is presently the case.
Furthermore, the preamble should specifically mention that it is the constitutional right of the people. The draft law restricts access to information to the residents of the province whereas it should give access to all citizens of Pakistan. As it stands at the moment, only residents of Punjab can have access to information. Furthermore, its scope needs to be broadened and NGOs should also be brought within the purview of the law.
In India, the right to information law is being used as an anti-corruption tool. Ordinary citizens submit information requests to get things done for which they had to bribe public officials prior to the enactment of the law. For example, people have submitted information requests demanding access to certified information pertaining to steps taken on their applications regarding pensions, gas/electricity meters, passports etc.
Using the right to information law, a poor woman sought certified information about the steps taken on arresting the murderer of her husband, which gave impetus to the investigation efforts. Now that the people of Pakistan have the constitutional right to have this anti-corruption tool, the federal and provincial governments are duty-bound to legislate on this issue.
The challenge for our federal and provincial governments is to enact effective and powerful right to information laws, just as in India, if they are serious about eradicating corruption and improving service delivery of public bodies.
The writer works for the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI).