Right to information in Pakistan

IN Media Practice | 21/07/2005
Right to information in Pakistan  



In Pakistan, as in India, the right to information is more honoured in the breach than the observance



Eeftiqar Haider



We have tried many things - from devolving power to the grassroots, to saving daylight time. Nothing seems to help the cause of good governance in the country. These hit-or-miss efforts may go on, corruption may go unchecked, but please, please give us "the right to know, the right to know."


Sang Faiz, "Speak, your lips are free". But without access to information, what will the inheritors of Faiz speak, and not fall into the traps of heresy, prejudice or mere prattle? "In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo."


With the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, and the recent appointment of Sharifuddin Pirzada as head of the committee on Freedom of Information law, a debate on the relevance and scope of the FoI Act floats in the media.


There are those who call it a landmark achievement, second only to the creation of Pakistan. Others see in it a work ‘limited in scope’ that grants the public the right - hemmed in by restrictions - to know how public funds are utilized, and how decisions are taken (or not taken, as the case may be). Many call it a mockery of the people’s right to know, particularly in view of the baleful sweep of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and in the absence of a Whistle Blowers Act - which makes it somewhat impractical to speak the truth.


These observations are quintessentially South Asian. In India, as in Pakistan, things are less than ideal with regard to freedom of information, though activists in both the countries are working against great odds to help their fellow citizens achieve the right to know.  Offshore interventions, particularly by Article 19 - an UK-based freedom of information group - claim to have initiated a global campaign on the theme. In Pakistan, the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP) in particular has been remarkably active and their contribution to the current FOI Act is tangible. In India, the activities of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) are worthy of note. 


MKSS is a grassroots organisation working in the deserts of Rajasthan since 1990. It was formed in the backdrop of rampant exploitation of labourers at famine relief sites, who were denied their minimum wages by an administration that rubbished their claims. As proof, the officers mentioned certain ‘measurement books’ filled in by junior engineers. The labourers naturally requested a glimpse of these mysterious ‘measurement books’, but the administrators - suitably aghast - turned them down on the plea that all the relevant records were ‘state secrets’ according to the Official Secrets Act (1923), and the books simply could not be opened to the public.


This led to some debate on first principles, and the workers came to the logical conclusion that "till we get access to those records, we will always be told that we didn`t work, and the administration can never be challenged." To demand their right to know, they tried every method in the activist’s handbook: sit-ins; rallies; lobbying; music; puppets shows; street theatre. And slogans: `Our money, our account - the right to know, the right to know’; `government belongs to you and me, it`s no one`s personal property` - were all chanted with verve to establish the concept of participatory democracy. Finally, the government of Rajasthan backed down and passed an order by which the people were given the right to inspect the relevant records and even get certified photocopies.


Initially, MKSS inspected the records of one Panchayat (village council). Astonishing lapses and malpractices were detected in them. From this emerged the technique of jan-sunwai or public hearing. MKSS obtains the records of public works carried out by the village council in the last five years. The records are taken to each village where the work was supposed to have been carried out. Testimonies are taken from villagers and those employed on the site. A day is fixed for the public hearing in front of all villagers and a panel of lawyers, journalists, academicians and government officials. The panel examines the records and asks for clarifications. 


The benefits of these public hearings are real and immediate: a rapid rise in wages, unpaid workers finding themselves being paid. In proven cases of embezzlement, the head of the village council, the Sarpanch, promises to put the money back into the panchayat exchequer. Corruption is dealt a nasty blow, the community becomes vigilant, and prospects for future corruption become very dim. 


Now back to Pakistan. Since the Act is to become a law soon, senator Farhatullah Babar has pointed out "serious shortcomings" in the FoI Act. Yet, he suggests, "Shortcomings can be removed only through an open discussion in parliament." He adds, "the draft law should be thrown open for a public debate for a month or so before being presented in parliament so that all stakeholders and members of civil society can contribute to the making of such a fundamental law."


So far, so good. But there are concerns. The act (or law, for that matter, if made) must extend to federal, provincial and up to district governments. The government must publicise the scope and benefits of the ‘right to know’. It can adopt the advertising strategy adopted by the Punjab government in the ‘Parha Likha Punjab campaign, with half page advertisements and more.  Civil society organisations could also fan out to the grassroots to help the people know what exactly this ‘right to know’ means. Will they follow the example of MKSS? 


The RTI movement was born in the desert, and it seems likely that Islamabad, too, could soon become one.  A hint can be found in the proliferation of date-palm trees in the city. CDA has invested Rs 9,900 on each khajoor (date-palm) tree planted along Jinnah Avenue. Were it not for Mukhtar Ahmed, CRCP project coordinator who dared to question the chairman of CDA about the money spent on these plantations, by now all the greenery would have vanished from Islamabad and camels would be ambling by the khajoor trees.



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