Tehmina Qureshi

The Sindh government has several feathers in its cap when it comes to taking steps for the protection of human rights. But with no sustainable mechanisms beyond the popular method of setting up commissions and committees, instead of devising workable mechanisms for resolving human rights issues in the province, the liability for the province now lies in keeping those feathers in place.

Undoubtedly, the province has achieved major milestones in the form of enacted legislations, including making free and fair education a basic human right and criminalization of child marriages. However, by taking upon itself to uphold the protection of human rights, the government also invites criticism for not doing enough to ensure their implementation and devising workable mechanism to catch and penalize the violators. This is not surprising because often it is the authorities themselves who are to blame.

The government of Sindh, which has been led by the Pakistan People’s Party since 2008 and with the Muttahida Quami Movement playing musical chairs in cabinet offices for the past two years, has a habit of championing causes but being lackadaisical in devising mechanisms for resolving them. The drought in Thar last year and the loss of hundreds of lives on its account, and afterwards due to misappropriation in distribution of relief supplies, is perhaps the worst stain on the provincial ‎government’s performance report card. It led to the passage of an act in the Sindh Assembly in the third quarter of 2014, calling for the establishment of ‎Thar Development Authority with the provincial minister for local government, information and house planning, Sharjeel Inam Memon, as its chairman. The act was amended later, in February this year, to include charging of a ‘betterment fee’ from landholders of Thar desert for the development of infrastructure.

The portfolio of human rights in Sindh resides with the chief minister, since the earlier minister Rubina Qaimkhani was relieved of her duties a couple of months ago. Since then Nadia Gabol has been offering her services as the chief minister’s coordinator on human rights and inadvertently looking after the department. The department has no liaison or coordination with the federal government for dealing with human rights violations, nor with the provincial commission set up by the government.

Right after the 18th amendment was passed, the Sindh government celebrated with setting up a provincial human rights commission. However, it has been two years since the body was notified and since then it is being managed solely by a retired judge with no funds at her disposal. Though the one-man commission does take notice of human rights violations, but its mandate is limited to providing recommendations to the chief minister and the governor.

The status and its mandate can also be gauged by the fact that not even members of the Sindh Assembly are aware of its existence and its chairperson, a retired judge, had run its affairs out of her own pocket for two years before being given a space in the Sindh Secretariat and some spare funds from the government’s kitty. The Sindh High Court too is devoid of any special cell or bench to specifically deal with human rights cases. All such cases presented before the court come via petitions filed by lawyers or organizations working pro-bono for the causes of their choice.

With the highest population of out-of-school children, nearly 6.5 million children between the ages of five and 16 according to the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences, Sindh was the first province to enact the Free and Fair Education Act 2013. A great leap towards progress indeed, but even two years after the passage of legislation by the Sindh Assembly, its rules of business have not been framed. On the other hand, education-related issues in the province keep growing from bad to worse and that too while drawing serious criticism from all corners pertaining to the government’s inefficiency. According to the latest district rankings by Alif Ailaan, not a single district from Sindh made it to the top 50 well-performing areas of the country, except Karachi, which stands at the 43rd place in terms of provision and access of children to primary education by the government.

The provincial government achieved another milestone later in the same year when it passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, which calls for jail time up to three years and fine worth Rs 45,000 for under-18 bride and groom, their guardians or anyone else found involved in arranging their union. However, the following year, despite efforts to implement laws pertaining to the protection of women and children, around 1,261 cases of kidnapping for forced marriages were registered by the provincial government itself.

The cases were reported at the human rights desks set up by the provincial department concerned in Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana and Sukkur in collaboration with the police department three years ago. The desks have been set up to take up cases of honour killings and exploitation, and pursue them through the legal or criminal recourse as needed. The desks have a designated helpline number on which women can call and register their complaint upon which its personnel will pay a visit to the area to investigate or pursue the matter. It also provides financial assistance on case to case basis, the department claims. However, the high number of reported cases reflects the persistence of a larger phenomenon whose scale has yet to be ascertained by the government and independent agencies alike.

Similarly, in the past year, after the new provincial government assumed office, the Sindh Assembly has been very active in passing laws pertaining to devolution,  which inadvertently also include subjects of public interest. The Sindh assembly also passed the Sindh Healthcare Commission Act in 2013 for improving and regulating the quality of health services, besides ‎banning quackery from the province. But simultaneously, the infighting among the office bearers of Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, initiatives like evening medical colleges in Larkana, on-the-fence status of major public health institutions supposed to have been devolved to Sindh ‎have seriously impacted the overall status and credibility of government’s efforts limited to passing laws in the Sindh Assembly.

Similarly, another good law, also passed in 2013, calling for screening of couples before marriage for the Thalassemia gene also warrants implementation. Another major piece of legislation passed by the Sindh Assembly in 2013 was the highly controversial Sindh Local Government Act‎. In this case, even the passage of the law could not be described as a commendable feat because of major flaws in the legislation and the conniving way it was moved in the Sindh Assembly. The local government law had held all municipal affairs subject to government’s approval. But the most objectionable lacuna in the law ‎was the power of the provincial government to change constituencies with a single notification, clearly an intrusion on the mandate of Election Commission of Pakistan. A major infringement ‎upon human rights in the law was the reduction of reserved seats for women and members of the minority communities from 33 percent to 22 percent.

Preparations for a local government at the end of 2013 came to a screeching halt when the Sindh ‎High Court declared all delimitation carried out under the act null and void. Though the law was amended accordingly in 2014, and the powers were sent back in the domain of ECP, but local government elections in Sindh have yet to see the light of day despite several orders of the Supreme Court.

With the targeted operation in Karachi kicked off in September 2013 and the police department beginning to be rattled by its backlash, ‎the passage of Sindh Shaheed Recognition and Compensation Act 2014 was indeed a commendable feat. The laws makes it mandatory for the provincial government to pay Rs 2 million to the families of policemen killed in action. Though it takes at least five to six months for the paperwork to get sorted and moved through the bureaucratic channels this is one area where the Sindh government hasn’t been found ‎lacking yet.

Meanwhile, the incumbent provincial assembly, since 2013 election has also passed a number of acts pertaining to the establishment of development authorities for Malir, Hyderabad, Sehwan, Lyari and Larkana. But so far, like the Thar Development Authority, their work and mandate remains only on paper.

The assembly had also notified the establishment of  Sindh Special Development Board in October, 2014, to undertake low-cost housing schemes, rehabilitate residents of slum areas and also regulate high-rise buildings in the province. A much-needed step, especially in the wake of rampant violence in the city, was the passage of Sindh Injured Persons (Medical Aid Act) 2014 for allowing treatment of victims of violence without police clearance. Prior to the passage of this law, doctors had to wait for the police to arrive with the required paperwork to begin giving medical aid to even innocent victims of violence. Similarly, the Sindh Employees Old-Age Benefit Act, calls for setting up a provincial institution and another, the Sindh Education Standards and Curriculum Act, both passed last year, need implementation.

Another good move by the provincial assembly has been to enact a law for payment of welfare and provision of jobs and health facilities to the “differently-abled” persons of the province. In this regard, the social welfare department under its former minister Rubina Qaimkhani had taken the initiative of writing letters to government departments to inquire and urge them to hire people with disabilities or pay the mandatory fines to the government. However, according to the department officials’ own admission, the matter did not proceed further ‎than this.

Moreover, the provincial government has also taken commendable initiatives for the establishment of at least three universities last year, with one of them being in Lyari.

But one crucial area which the government has overlooked, has been with regards to right to information. Sindh still remains without an RTI law and the current legislation in this regard is outdated and in dire need of overhaul.

However, all said and done, it can be argued that ‎even if there is lack of implementation, the legislative body of the province has done a remarkable job in providing the authorities a rudimentary structure for legal recourse in matters pertaining to public interest or human rights.

But to devolve the laws to the people and to make them take ownership of legal recourse still remains a big challenge in Sindh. Only when the citizens begin approaching the designated government structures, will the authorities be prompted to streamline the mechanisms to resolve their problems.
[Ms. Tehmina Qureshi is Karachi based civic educator and writer]