The Nation: Islamabad: Imram Mukhtar: Sunday, February 5, 2017.
As the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) seems reluctant to furnish details of rented buildings it has hired for offices, the federal ombudsman has directed the authority to release the required information immediately.
Federal Ombudsman Salman Farooqi has directed NADRA to provide the rent details of the buildings it was using for offices in Islamabad and the four provincial capitals on a complaint of this correspondent under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002, within 20 of the request.
This correspondent, as a complainant, had filed a right to information (RTI) request on October 26, 2016, with the NADRA chairman seeking information how many buildings the authority has hired on rent for its offices in the four provincial capitals (Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta) and Islamabad. The NADRA was also requested to furnish the details of the rent it was paying for the buildings per month. The authority, however, remained reluctant to provide the information within 21 working days as required under the law. As a result, the complainant filed a complaint under section 19(1) of FOI Ordinance 2002 against NADRA with the federal ombudsman.
Earlier at the end of September last year, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had tasked the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to probe the hiring a building by NADRA for Rs 4.5 million per month in Islamabad. The minister while chairing a NADRA board meeting had observed that the authority high-ups paid 18-month upfront rent under a shady contract while the building has not yet been moved. Nisar was of the view that building had been hired at an exorbitant rate than the actual market value under a shady deal.
In the RTI request, the complainant had also requested NADRA to provide lease agreements of all hired buildings including the amount of rent (being paid per month) of each building, its location, the year of the lease, the size of the building and purpose of use. The NADRA was also asked to provide the details of the hiring committee members when each building was hired.
Even after the complaint was filed with the federal ombudsman, the NADRA failed to furnish the report before to ombudsman’s secretariat by the due date of January 6, 2017. Consequently, the secretariat summoned NADRA for a hearing on January 10.
Syed Anwar Mahmood, former secretary information and Honorary Senior Adviser Ombudsman’s Secretariat in his findings directed that NADRA should provide the information to the complainant without disclosing the names of the owners of the buildings.
“The fact has been agreed by the representative of the agency (NADRA) Umar Shafiq, Deputy Director, during the hearing held on 10-01-2017 who assured to provide the requested information/record to the complainant,” the findings said.
The adviser remarked that the NADRA’s failure in not responding in writing to the reference sent by his office was an act of indiscipline for which the authority was also advised to initiate disciplinary action against the officer responsible for this negligence.
The NADRA officer during the hearing maintained that the authority could not disclose the identity of the owners of the buildings without their consent as this could lead to the insecurity of the owners.
Though Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have enforced strong RTI laws, the ruling PML-N at the federal level is still deliberating to make a new law on right to information even after the passage of three and half years of its tenure.
The federal government departments take advantage of the weak clauses of FOI 2002, enforced during the era of a military dictator Gen (retd) Pervaiz Musharraf and always show reluctance to provide information to the citizens, a senior bureaucrat, who was part of the process when this law was formed, said. He lamented that the consecutive democratic regimes did not make a single amendment to the law legislated during a military regime.
A Senate select committee had recently approved the draft of Right to Information (RTI) Bill, 2016 after holding certain meetings to reconcile various provisions of the proposed law drafted by the federal government. Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), an Islamabad-based NGO, in a statement has termed it unfortunate that civil society groups, journalists and information commissioners of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa who have rich experience of implementing their right to information laws have not been involved in the process of legislation on right to information at federal level.