The Chief Minister of Punjab Mian Shehbaz Sharif has always made tall claims about good governance and Imran Khan raised slogan during the election campaign that he will deliver unprecedented good governance if he came into power. Given the rivalry between PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf that was witnessed during the elections and beyond, it is interesting to see the way this rivalry is translating into a race for good governance between the two parties in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For a change, print, electronic and social media compared the two provincial budgets allocated for social sector, an unparalleled but welcome development. Although the funds allocated for social sector is significant factor in improving quality of life of people, it is not the allocation alone that ensures improved service delivery in health, education and other social sectors. The pilferage by the vested mafias and reappropriation of these funds for whimsical projects of the rulers is a common knowledge. In other words, along with the allocation of amble funds for social sector, it is important to ensure the proper utilization of these funds. In short, good governance.
People of Pakistan have been fed with empty slogans in the name of good governance. One of the major indicators of good governance is the transparent functioning of the government. The right to information legislation has ensured open and transparent functioning governments wherever there is good governance and better delivery of services for the common people. It would be interesting to see how PML-N and PTI will perform on this count.
If political manifestoes are anything to go by, it can be safely assumed that both political parties realize the significance of legislation on right to information.
In the manifesto of PML-N, there is commitment of improvement in freedom of information law. The manifesto of PTI talks about the enhanced access to information by reviewing the RTI laws.
During the last tenure of National Assembly and provincial assemblies, the only significant development regarding citizens’ right to information has been the constitutional protection accorded to it through Article 19-A under 18th Amendment. However, national and provincial assemblies were required to enact laws laying down procedure as to how citizens can exercise this right. Political dithering on this count can hardly be explained as realization of all basic human rights is dependent on people’s ability to exercise this right. Be it right to education, right to healthcare facilities, right to clean drinking water, right to breathe in clean air, right to vote even as fundamental and inalienable right as right to life can only be exercised meaningfully and effectively if one has the ability to exercise right to information. Seen in this context it is mind-boggling as to why none of the major political parties, Pakistan People’s Party ((PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Awami National Party (ANP) and Motahida Qomi Movement (MQM )which have been in power for almost five years have not taken any meaningful steps to legislate on right to information. During the tenure of last assemblies, PPP and MQM remained in coalition government in Sindh and PPP remained in power in Balochistan with the help of other political parties but these provinces have yet to enact an effective right to information law under which citizens can seek information about service delivery matters from public bodies. Similarly, PML-N enjoyed power in Punjab, a province housing over 100 million people and no right to information law. This situation is especially ironical given the fact that Chief Minister of the province kept on making tall claims about good governance but his party did not legislate a law which goes a long way in ensuring transparent functioning of public bodies. In KPK, if ANP had shown half of the resilience it showed in the case of changing the name of the province, residents of the province would have the right which UN Resolution 59(1) declared is ‘”touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated “.
This time around, no matter what the pessimists say, patterns of the race for good governance are discernable. KP government unveiled its agenda for good governance on August 18th, 2013. While launching the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Ordinance 2013, PTI leadership shared that legislation on right to service will soon be carried out and accountability commission will be established.
The KP RTI Ordinance 2013 is rightly being dubbed as one of the best laws in the world. The establishment of independent and powerful information commission, no fee for first 20 pages of the records requested and penalty to be imposed on the officer for unlawfully denying access to information are exceedingly good provisions.
The definition of information needs to be made more explicit given our particular context, scope of definition of public body needs to be expanded and semi-autonomous and autonomous bodies, and Peshawar High Court and NGOs need to be brought into the purview of the law. We also think that composition of KP Information Commission needs to be looked into more carefully. So far as penalty for not providing information is concerned, it needs to be replaced with one day salary of the officer rather than 250 rupees per day owing to the inflation factor. Coalition on Right to Information, (CRTI), and a platform of 20 civil society organizations has already highlighted these issues and raised with KP government. These issues need to be dealt with when this ordinance is presented in the KP Assembly for its approval.
The Punjab government is also trying to get its act together on legislation front and it shared through media on August 08, 2013 the draft of Punjab Freedom of Information Act 2013 for public comments. There are apprehensions that the Punjab government might do away with the proposed Punjab Information Commission. Such move will render the whole law rudderless for any law is as good as its implementation mechanism.
Civil society groups and media should also focus and highlight this emerging trend of competition for good governance between two provinces. Our anchorpersons do not find right to information legislation issue sexy enough to allocate time but then who has ever accused them of being forward-looking? RTI is an idea whose time has come and the media will soon be joining the bandwagon.
[Zahid Abdullah is a leading advocate for Right to Information in Pakistan and is associated with Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, (CPDI). Zahid@cpdi-pakistan.orgTwitter: @XahidAbdullah]