Islamabad: The right to information law meant to empower citizens and bring transparency in the government bodies appeared to be losing credibility as Sindh Information Commission’s unable to entertain citizen’s complaints.
In compliance with the orders of the Sindh High Court, the Sindh government had notified the three members’ commission in May 2018 to ensure the implementation of the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2017. The commission is comprised of Shahid Gulzar Shaikh as chief information commissioner, Syed Gul Muneer Shah and Sikandar Ali Hullio as information commissioners.
Almost eight months ago, the commission has established its office in the State Life Insurance Building opposite to the Chief Minister House on Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed Road in Karachi. The provincial government had allocated Rs. 55 million grant for the SIC for the fiscal year 2019-20. In its recent budget, the Sindh Government again allocated Rs. 55 million for the commission.
In Jan 2020, the SIC published notices in different leading English and Sindhi newspapers inviting complaints from the citizens in case they did not receive information requested under the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016, from any provincial department.
Large number of citizens including this scribe filed complaints to the commission, but did not receive any response.
Sikandar Ali Hullio – information commission SIC – said that the Commission has received more than 100 complaints against different provincial departments over the non-provision of the information to the citizen. He claimed that the commission has issued notices to the public bodies but did not received any response from these, later, the COVID-19 lockdown halted activities of the SIC.
Sikandar Ali Hullio said, the last year funds were not released due to non-approval of ToRs for the Commissioners by the provincial cabinet, non-activation of Bank Account and other procedural delays.
The right to information law is new for the public bodies that is why they are reluctant to share the information with the citizen and even with the commission, he maintained.
SIC has become operational now after the lockdown, and will effectively process the complaints as per law, he maintained.
To a question, he said, the details of the complaints and action taken on them is noted in a register at SIC, however, commission do not send any acknowledgment or copy of the notice to citizen, however, the commission has not conducted any hearing so far.
“Members of the commission will meet the Chief Secretary and will ask him to issue direction to the government department to respond to the notices of the commission”, Sikandar maintained.
Dr. Raza Gardezi – a social activist – has filed a constitutional petition in the Sindh High Court and pleaded the court to direct the provincial government to ensure Sindh Information Commission functioning, which entails, inter alia, the provision of office address and telephone number in order to be accessible to the general public, and to widely publicize all such information.
He also appealed to direct the government to ensure that the Sindh Information Commission shall facilitate the application of the provisions of the 2016 Act by enforcing within one month the provisions of Section 13(5) of the Act in letter and spirit.
When contacted, Dr. Raza Gardezi said, the commission was supposed to be notified within 90 days after act passed from the court but the government was reluctant to notify it unless the court ordered.
He maintained, the members of the commission are themselves not serious with their job, they are drawing their salaries from the first day after their notifications but not performing their duties that are to make sure the implementation of the law.
“We sent multiple information requests even to the SIC seeking information about the budget utilization, the commission itself did not responded to the information requests to date”, Gardezi maintained.
Mukhtar Ahmed Ali – former information commissioner at Punjab Information Commission (PIC) – said, establishing a new organization is a difficult job, the PIC did not have its own office and staff for more than one and half year, but the members of the commission started receiving complaints, issuing notices and order form their homes.
He added, bureaucracy is accustomed to hiding information, the commission needs to develop a culture of sharing information with the public.
Recruitment of staff, office establishment, budget release and such other activities takes t, but the prime responsibility of the information commission is to make sure the provision of the information to the citizen, so, the Sindh Information Commission should start issuing notices and order to make sure the provision of the information to the citizen, Mukhtar maintained.
The Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016 was passed by Sindh Assembly on 13th March 2017 and was assented by the governor of Sindh on 08th April 2017.
Using this law any citizen of Pakistan can seeks information and can acquire a record held by any provincial government department or organisation using public funds. The public body is boudnt to respond to the application within 15 working days.
The department will not charge any fee for making an information request other than the cost of reproducing or sending the information in accordance with a schedule of costs notified by the commission.
In case the public body do not respond to the information request or refused to provide the information, the citizen will have to lodge complaint before the SIC who will the complaint within 45 days of its receipt and ensure to pass the appropriate orders, including recommending disciplinary proceedings against the delinquent officials.
The commission has the power to cut 10 per cent of their basic salary if an official provide misleading information.
The act also gives power of a civil court to the commission to “summon and enforce attendance of persons, compel them to give oral or written evidence on oath and to produce documents or information; examine and inspect information; receive evidence on affidavits; request relevant information from any office; and to issue summons for witnesses or documents.”