Islamabad – The Sindh information department has moved a summary to Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah to establish the Sindh Information Commission as mandated by the provincial Right to Information (RTI) law.
The Sindh Services, Central Administration and Co-ordination Department confirmed this development in a letter to Dr. Syed Raza Gardezi, a Karachi-based civil rights activist who has advocated for better implementation of RTI laws in Pakistan over the past several years.
The RTI law enables citizens to ask government departments for public records and eases the way for government accountability.
Section 12 of The Sindh Transparency and RTI Act 2016, passed as a bill by the provincial assembly in March 2017, gave the government 100 days to establish the information commission. The law came into effect in April when Governor Sindh approved it. This set up an August deadline, which the government failed to meet. The commission’s formation is now nearly five months overdue.
The commission is the statutory appellate body under the RTI law and has to ensure the law’s effective implementation. In its absence, Sindh’s RTI law is as good as dead.
Dr. Gardezi had written to the Chief Secretary Sindh on 7 January to demand information about the status of appointment of the information commission.
The response letter from the services department dated 31 January, a copy of which is available with Media for Transparency, states that the department took up the matter with the information department.
The Secretary Information & Archives Department informed the services department that it had “already floated” a summary to Chief Minister Sindh for the “Establishment of Sindh Information Commission,” according to the letter.
Dr. Gardezi said this was a slightly more promising response than those he had received in the past on the same issue.
“Usually the responses to such requests say that they have ‘marked (the request) forward for action’ but this time they have said an actual summary has been moved to the Chief Minister,” he said.
However, Dr. Gardezi said he could not say whether it was a serious commitment by the government this time around or not.
“I cannot comment on the sincerity of the government,” he said. “In the end, it is up to the government to enact the law and form the commission.”
The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), a non-profit organization that has been at the forefront of RTI advocacy and government accountability initiatives in Pakistan, has also received similar guarantees in the past.
In a press conference in Karachi in January, CPDI representative Toufique Wassan said the Sindh information department claimed it had sent a summary to the Chief Minister’s office as early as September. If it’s the same summary referred to in the services department letter, the chances of the commission’s formation in the near future seem bleak.
Dr. Gardezi appeared to take a practical approach about the delay, perhaps cultivated through previous experience of bureaucratic affairs.
“I don’t know whether I should be hopeful or not…, but what other way is there for me?” he said rhetorically. “I will wait for a week or two weeks and if there’s no action, I will send another letter.”
He said it was also easier for the government to ignore demands for the formation of the commission because there is no mass movement around the RTI laws in Pakistan and the demand does not come from the general public except for a handful of activists and civil society organisations working on RTI advocacy.
“I say at least give it a try, raise this concern (about lack of RTI law implementation) with the government,” Dr. Gardezi said. “If it works, then that’s great but even if it doesn’t, at least I can say that I tried.”
The services department letter also stated the information department had appointed a public information officer (PIO) to deal with RTI requests. But officials at the information department Media for Transparency contacted did not seem to know which of their colleagues had been designated as the PIO.
Attempts were made to contact Secretary Information Imran Atta Soomro but he was unavailable for comment.