KARACHI: It’s common practice in Pakistan to shrug off the petty corruption in the public bodies of Pakistan. But it does not help the process of accountability.
The Shehri members at a workshop, organised at Institute of Engineers Pakistan, urged for a more proactive approach towards accountability. They emphasised that each and every able citizen should exercise their ‘right to know’, or the freedom for accessing information, which is guaranteed by Article 19A in Constitution of Pakistan.
But the question is that from where does an average citizen begin?
“A regular person should first know that he or she has certain entitlements,” said Shehri member Farhan Anwar, while addressing the audience, at first of the eight workshops of the series, planned to tell the people how they can utilise their right to information.
The first step to obtaining information or a record is to determine what information you actually need. “You have to be very specific and give a much targeted request,” said Naeem Sadiq, another Shehri member. “Otherwise you won’t get an answer if you simply ask ‘why was this underpass built in my neighborhood?’”
He told the audience to keep in mind that they were not requesting the government of Pakistan, but the specific department. “You can do this with every single public body.”
According to the law, every public body is required by law to have a designated official at BPS-19, to respond to information applications within 21 working days. If the designated BPS-19 does not exist – as most still don’t, according to Sadiq, then one can address the head of the department who is then required to respond to the application.
The application itself is simple and just requires a copy of the NIC and its number, with some contact information. A challan has to be submitted with Rs50 fee to process it.
“The challan is a test of your commitment as a citizen,” said Sadiq, said half-jokingly to emphasise that accountability was also the responsibility of proactive citizens.“No one, who isn’t committed, will stand in a line at the National Bank of Pakistan to submit their challan unless they’re committed.”
If you do not get your information from the designated official within 21 days then you can appeal to the head of the body and they are required to give you the information within 30 days.
If information is still not provided than you have a right to appeal to the federal or provincial ombudsman or the federal tax ombudsman, depending on the nature of the application. If the ombudsman doesn’t get your ear then a citizen has a right to take the matter to court.
However the tricky part is the clause: “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance which will be subjected to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed in the law.”
The list of things you ‘cannot ask for’ is long and open to debate.
A few of the ‘don’ts’ are: subjects causing grave and significant damage to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations, cause harm to law enforcement, result in commission of offence, may harm security of property or system, invasion of privacy of an identifiable individual, noting on files, minutes of meetings, records of banking companies and financial institutions relating the accounts of their customers, records relating to defence forces, defence installations or connected or ancillary to defence and national security, records declared classified by the federal government and plenty more.
In case a public body labels the request under one of these categories, the people can appeal and argue in front of an ombudsman.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2012.