Right to know
WILL the newly enacted Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016 be a harbinger of transparency in Sindh? The answer to this question lies in understanding the roles played by the provincial bureaucracy, the Sindh government and civil society groups in the enactment of this law.
As in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Sindh bureaucracy also came up with weak draft legislation in the shape of the Sindh Freedom of Information Bill, 2015 that was only marginally better than the Sindh Freedom of Information Act, 2006 that it sought to repeal.
Instead of containing one clearly and narrowly defined list of exempt information and declaring the rest as public information, the draft bill had separate lists: records that could not be shared at all; those that could be shared; and others that could be shared but with the caveat that certain types of information, if contained in these records, would not be shared. The governor and Sindh Assembly secretariats were out of its purview, and no time limits were placed on the proposed Sindh Information Commission to decide on complaints. Through these and other such lacunae, the bureaucracy wanted to ensure its hold on information-sharing arrangements in the province.
It goes to the Sindh government’s credit that it heeded suggestions by civil society groups and introduced a second draft in the shape of the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Bill, 2016. Furthermore, it set up a committee consisting of treasury and opposition members in the provincial assembly to further amend the bill in the light of recommendations by civil society groups, journalists and legal experts.
As a result, the law, enacted on March 13, 2017, meets all the standards of effective RTI legislation, such as maximum disclosure, minimal exemptions, obligation for proactive disclosure, process to facilitate access to information, minimum cost for requested information and disclosure taking precedence over exemption.
If the hurdles created by the bureaucracy are any guide, however, there are bound to be challenges in implementation. As the law has come into force with immediate effect, will public information officers (PIOs) be designated in all Sindh public bodies within 45 days to facilitate citizens in accessing information, as required by Section 7 of the law? Will provincial public bodies start taking steps for proactive disclosure of certain categories of information, as required under Section 6?
If the RTI law is to be implemented, the Sindh government will have to take four major steps in the coming months. One, it should instruct the chief secretary to designate PIOs in all public bodies without delay. These officers should be assigned a specific designation indicating that he or she is a public information officer.
Two, it should constitute ‘search’ committees to appoint information commissioners in the Sindh Information Commission in accordance with the eligibility criteria mentioned in Section 12 of the law. The criteria stipulate that the commission would be headed by a chief information commissioner who shall be a retired senior government servant not below the rank of BPS-20. One commissioner would be a person who is an advocate of the Sindh High Court or the Supreme Court, and is qualified to be a judge of the high court. The other commissioner would be a person from the civil society having no less than 15 years’ experience in his profession.
Three, the provincial government should establish the Sindh Information Commission and give it budgetary and administrative autonomy.
Four, after the information commissioners have been appointed, the government should frame service rules for the commission so that it has the requisite staff to carry out its functions.
Once these steps have been taken, it would be reasonable to expect that the information commissioners will be able to carry out their obligations as defined under the law. These include: developing transparency standards for public bodies in Sindh; ensuring proactive disclosure of information by the latter and timely disposal of complaints; developing a schedule of fees; creating mass awareness about the rights of the people under the law; compiling guidelines for and imparting training to PIOs; devising monitoring mechanisms to determine compliance by the public bodies; and publishing annual reports.
The experience of putting in place independent and autonomous information commissions in South Asia to ensure implementation of RTI laws is a mixed one. As the buck has to stop somewhere, there is no better alternative but to entrust an information commission the task of implementing such a law and help citizens exercise their RTI. Once the Sindh Information Commission is established, civil society groups and the media will have to stay vigilant to ensure that the newly enacted law works to the benefit of the people.