Right to information challenges: A deep dive into Punjab’s transparency struggles

Naeem Ahmed


Read In Urdu


Right to information challenges: A deep dive into Punjab’s transparency struggles

Naeem Ahmed


Read In Urdu

The Punjab Health Department issued a notification on June 16, 2023, announcing the closure of 62 government dispensaries out of 114 in Faisalabad, effective from July 1, 2023.

The notice described the decision to close the dispensaries as “compliance with the orders” of the provincial Ombudsman Punjab.

However, when this correspondent submitted a request to the Office of the Provincial Ombudsman Punjab to find out the reasons for these orders under the Right to Information Act (RTI), it was revealed that the Provincial Ombudsman Punjab had not given any such notification to the Health Department. The order was not issued at all.

The provincial ombudsman issued a notice to the Secretary of the Health Care Department on July 5, 2023, and sought an explanation. As a result, the Health Department’s decision to close the dispensaries was withdrawn, ultimately saving thousands of people from being deprived of basic healthcare facilities.

Similarly, on the request submitted by journalist Akmal Malik of Jhang, who received the RTI champion award in 2019, the health department pointed out that the highest number of hepatitis patients in Jhang belong to Mukhiana village.

Akmal Malik says that when his report, based on the information received in response to the RTI (Right to Information) application, was published, teams from the Health Department immediately reached the village. They provided medical facilities to the patients on a priority basis and ensured the supply of clean drinking water to the community.

It’s worth noting that the Provincial Assembly passed the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act on December 12, 2013, aiming to make the government more accountable by granting citizens better access to official information.

Under this law, requests for obtaining information can be submitted to any government department, autonomous or semi-autonomous government agencies, and government assistance organisations. The relevant head of the government department or the Public Information Officer, as per Section 10 of the Right to Information Act, must provide the requested information within 14 days.

Under the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, citizens can file an appeal with the Provincial Information Commission if they do not receive the requested information or if the information provided is incomplete. The Commission must make a decision under Section 11 of the RTI Act within 30 days of receiving any complaint or within 60 days if there are valid reasons for an extension.

To streamline and facilitate this process, the Punjab Information Commission established the “District Right to Information Act Centres” in the offices of the Deputy Commissioners in ten major cities of the province in January 2023.
However, the District RTI Center in Faisalabad has become a significant obstacle to citizens’ right to access information rather than being a facilitator.

On February 13, 2023, this correspondent submitted a request to the District RTI Center to obtain information about the income and expenditure of the past year, as well as details about cricket matches and other events held at the Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad.

Despite completing the 14 days stipulated under the Right to Information Act for providing information in response to this request, various excuses were made, and the provision of information was denied after more than two and a half months had passed. During this time, it was repeatedly stated that the concerned officers were busy with other responsibilities.

Due to this behaviour, a complaint was filed with the Punjab Information Commission on May 7, 2023, against the actions of the District RTI Centre’s incharge, J Kashif Raza Awan.

In response to this complaint, the Commission issued three notices to the in-charge, summoning him to appear before the Commission on May 30, June 15, and again on June 19, 2023, but he failed to respond.

 Finally, on June 24, 2023, he refused to provide the requested information in response to the Commission’s final notice, categorising Iqbal Stadium Faisalabad as a “non-public body.”

In light of this development, this representative filed another appeal with the Punjab Information Commission on July 3, 2023, seeking a legal order in response to the reply submitted by the incharge.

Following the appeal, the Commission rejected the response from the District RTI Center and issued orders to provide the requested information by July 31, 2023. Additionally, they ordered the submission of the agreement and other necessary documents to the Commission.

During this period, JK Emma, the in-charge of the District RTI Center, faced pressure from Naveed Nazir, the caretaker of Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad, to either withdraw the RTI application or to find various means to obtain the required information without formal disclosure.

On the initially agreed date of July 31, 2023, as set by the Punjab Information Commission, the in-charge of the District RTI Center pledged to provide the required information by August 16, 2023. However, when the information was not received by the specified date, this representative submitted another appeal to the Punjab Information Commission.

In response to this appeal, the information provided by the District RTI Center on August 22, 2023, revealed that information about Iqbal Stadium’s closure for a year and the income generated from competitions and events was available. However, crucial details concerning income and expenditure related to staff working at Iqbal Stadium, shop rentals, and other sources of revenue were not provided.

On August 23, 2023, yet another appeal was filed with the Punjab Information Commission regarding the provision of incomplete information by the in-charge of the District RTI Center. As of now, there has yet to be a response to this appeal.

Similarly, when a request was submitted on March 8, 2023, to obtain information about the performance of the District RTI Center, there was no response for three and a half months.

Subsequently, on June 22, 2023, another application was submitted on this matter. Despite the passage of 14 days, an appeal was filed against the in-charge of the District RTI Center with the Punjab Information Commission on July 10, 2023, for failing to provide the requested information.

Following the notice issued by the Punjab Information Commission in response to this representative’s appeal, the in-charge of the District RTI Centre submitted a reply to the Commission on July 19, claiming that the information had been provided to the applicant on March 15, 2023.

In response to this false reply submitted by the in-charge, another appeal was lodged with the Punjab Information Commission on July 26. In this appeal, the Commission was requested to address the inclusion of the information mentioned in the in-charge’s reply and to take action against the false claim of provision and the harassment of the petitioner, who was unjustly labelled a “habitual applicant.”

Furthermore, during the past eight months, despite the submission of ten requests at the District RTI Center for obtaining information on various matters from the district administration, no information has been provided to date. Appeals have been filed with the Commission in this regard, but there has been no response received from there either.

It is worth mentioning that the District RTI Centre incharge has not completed the process of nominating Public Information Officers (PIOs) in all government departments operating at the district level so far. This has hindered the improvement in providing information on requests submitted by citizens.

It’s important to note that according to Section 7 of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013, every government agency is mandated to issue a notification for the appointment of one or more public information officers in both their main and subsidiary offices within 60 days from the enactment of this law. These officers are responsible for providing the required information to citizens within the stipulated period.

Furthermore, under Section 9 of the same law, every institution or office is required to publish an annual report in electronic or other forms detailing the implementation and performance of this law during the preceding year. These reports should be made available by August 31 each year. However, Deputy Commissioner Faisalabad and other government departments have not fulfilled this obligation by failing to publish the annual reports for the previous year.

Gulnaz Yaqub, a resident of Faisalabad and an employee of the health department, submitted two separate applications to the Municipal Corporation and Local Government Department in April 2023 to obtain information about health facilities in her area. Unfortunately, she did not receive a response to either of her requests. In response to this lack of response, she filed appeals against both departments with the Punjab Information Commission in May 2023.

Upon receiving notice from the Commission, the respective departments finally provided the requested information to Gulnaz Yaqub. She points out that despite being employed in a government department, she still encountered difficulties obtaining the information she sought, highlighting the challenges that citizens often face in accessing information from government agencies.

Journalist Shazia Mehboob Tanoli, who received the RTI Champion award in 2021, has expressed concerns about the increasing difficulty in obtaining information from government departments over time. She notes that it has become a common practice in government departments to intentionally delay the provision of information. Unfortunately, by the time the information is finally made available, the relevant issue has often already concluded.

Furthermore, Shazia Mehboob Tanoli has mentioned that she herself has been waiting for the hearing on her two appeals that she submitted to the Information Commission for the past month and a half.

Sadia Mazhar, a journalist who was honoured with the RTI Champion Award in 2022, says that information commissioners often encounter non-cooperation from both the government and the bureaucracy. Additionally, she notes that there have been efforts to undermine and disable information commissions at the government level using various pretexts.

The situation regarding pending appeals and the imposition of fines for non-supply of information is concerning. According to information available on the Punjab Information Commission’s website, there are currently 748 appeals pending with the Commission against various government departments for failing to provide information. Furthermore, since the establishment of the Punjab Information Commission, only 21 government officers have been fined for failing to provide information as required by law. This data highlights the challenges and shortcomings in implementing Right to Information laws and the need for greater transparency and accountability.

The Chief Information Commissioner of Punjab, Mehboob Qadir Shah, is optimistic that the active exercise of the right to access information by citizens and the efforts made by the Punjab Information Commission will ultimately help address the obstacles and delays in the provision of information by government officials. He believes that greater awareness and utilisation of this right can contribute to solving these issues.

Also Read


Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Right to Information Act faces decline in effectiveness, raising concerns over government accountability

Mehboob Qadir Shah also highlights some major reasons for hindrances in obtaining information under the Right to Information Act. He points out the lack of ownership by the government and the insufficient digitisation in government departments as key factors contributing to these challenges. Addressing these issues through improved processes and increased transparency efforts can play a vital role in enhancing citizens’ access to information.

Faisal Manzoor Khokhar, the project manager of the Centre for Peace and Development Initiative, a social organisation dedicated to raising public awareness about the Right to Information Act, emphasises that citizens often attempt to exercise their right to access information. However, when they encounter non-responsiveness or delays from the relevant government departments, they become frustrated and may ultimately give up on utilising this right.

Former Chief Information Commissioner of the Punjab Information Commission, Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, acknowledges that information access has gradually improved over the last decade. However, he emphasises that there is still much work to be done. He believes that obtaining information from government departments should be a smooth endeavour if the government demonstrates seriousness in implementing this law. This highlights the importance of both citizen awareness and government commitment to ensuring transparency and accountability through the Right to Information Act.

Published on 5 Sep 2023

How do you like this report?