For a nation to progress, what is most important is accountability - something that is impossible to achieve in the absence of information. For, without accountability, a country cannot hope to develop its state infrastructure. The Sindh Freedom of Information Act, 2006, provides citizens with the opportunity to question and hold accountable bureaucrats and civil servants, making it difficult for the latter to get away with embezzlement and corruption.
Alas! The general public has not realised the importance of this law and has yet to awaken to the cause of accountability. Shehri - Citizens for a Better Environment has been trying to inculcate the importance of this law and its benefits to the masses. Their success, however, has been limited, judging from the handful of applications filed under the information law since its legislation.
The struggle, however, continues and the non-profit organisation arranged yet another capacity-building session on Saturday. The participants were walked through the procedure through which information may be obtained from government departments and about their right to ask questions about government decisions.
“Try to not take a complaint but a question,” advised Saima Adeel, a research consultant at Shehri. “When you take a complaint, the other person gets defensive. Make it a step by step process,” she suggested, while walking the audience through the procedure in her session, ‘Write to know’. “If there is not an official form for the request of information in the department, the question can also be written with the name and contact of the person under the banner of ‘Request under freedom of information law’.”
In the first phase, the question or complaint is submitted to the public information officer, who is mandated to reply to the query within 21 days. If the officer does not reply within the given time, the petitioner can send the application to the head of the department who must respond in the next 30 days. If the head fails to reply, then the ombudsman can be contacted, who has 60 days to reply. If all these attempts fail, the citizen has the right to appeal to the Governor or the President of the country.
“Unfortunately, there are no public information officers (PIO) in any department of Sindh. Even the KMC [Karachi Metropolitcan Corporation]doesn’t have a PIO,” said Syed Raza Ali Gardezi, a training advisor at Shehri. He stressed that there should be PIOs in all public offices whose sole duty should be to assist the petitioners, adding that KP and Punjab have a better right to information (RTI) practice than Sindh. They have been taking penalties and working on it.
“If a ten-year-old girl in India can use her right to information and ask if it is the government’s order to use the phrase ‘father of the nation’ for Gandhi, then we can also ask any question,” said Saima Adeel, adding that even rickshaw drivers can use the RTI law in India.
“Four million people have used the RTI law in India, while in Pakistan the numbers are really low,” said Gardezi. He added that India had implemented this law after Pakistan, but had gone ahead because their mainstream media and films encouraged questioning authority. He also pointed out that the Punjab government was showing ads regarding RTI to spread awareness about it, unlike Sindh’s government.
Referring to the maintaining and indexing of records in government offices, Gardezi said that the publication and availability of records was imperative for people to be aware about what was going on in government offices. Citing the example of K-Electric’s privatisation agreement, he said that his organisation had got access to the details through the right to information law.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2015.
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