Friday, March 17, 2017

Sindh’s RTI law: initial impressions

Business Recorder‎‎‎: PK: Friday, March 17, 2017.
Congratulations! Sindh has finally joined Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in making governments and their institutions open, transparent and accountable. Well, at least on paper. Earlier this week, Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information (TRTI) Bill 2016, thereby replacing the toothless Sindh Freedom of Information Act 2006.
While the final version of the bill passed by the Sindh Assembly had not been put on its website at the time of writing this note, the amendments (made by the assemblys select committee) to earlier drafts of the bill suggests that on the whole, the passed bill is an improved version of its earlier versions, though it still contains a few disconcerting clauses. Sources say that the amendments proposed by the select committee were accepted with much ado.
Timelines in general have been shortened, whether for appointment of designated information officer, or, for instance, shorter time period within which a public body must provide information. In the previous draft, the maximum allowed time frame was 30 working days with an extension of 15 working days if the required information is not readily available. Those timelines have been amended downwards to 15 working days with an extension of 10 working days.
The definition of the public body has also been expanded; it now also includes CM secretariat, something which was missing in the previous draft. In this context, Sindh RTI law now stands parallel to KPs where secretariats of both CM and governor are included in the definition of public body which have to make certain proactive disclosures as well as hire a designated information officer to provide information for queries made under the Sindh TRTI law. In Punjabs law the CM secretariat is not defined as a public body and thereby outside the ambit of Punjabs RTI law.
An improvement is also visible in application procedure. In the previous draft the applicant was required to furnish reasons for the request of information from public body. Following Punjab, KP and international best practise, the amended draft has done away with the requirement to furnish any reasons on the part of applicant.
In so far as proactive disclosures by a public body are concerned, the amended bill now also includes maintenance of record in respect of applications for information received and actions taken thereof. However, in the amended bill, under 6(1)(f), Sindh has culled the opportunities for the public to provide input into decision making or to be consulted about decisions.
Like Punjab, and KP, the previous version of Sindhs TRTI bill mandated public bodies to proactively disclose description of its decision-making processes and any opportunities for the public to provide input into decision making or to be consulted about decisions. The revised version of that clause now only reads: description of its decision-making processes.
This is a step backward. The list should have been expanded and made more specific by taking a leaf from KPs RTI law, under which, for instance, public bodies also need to proactively disclose relevant facts and background information relating to important policies and decisions being formulate or made.
One positive addition in the amended list of proactive disclosure is the qualification of officers and key employees of public bodies in Sindh. This disclosure of qualification is not found in KP or Punjabs laws. Knowing the history of undeserving appointments, this clause, if implemented by public bodies, could shed more light on nepotistic appointments in the province.
The list of exemption from disclosure also has been made more specific, which is a good thing as some aspects of the exemption list were vague and impossibly wide in the previous draft. However, the exemption has also been expanded, a subject on which this column awaits a discussion by legal experts.
In the final analysis, however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many good laws have been made in this country and many left unimplemented. The passing of the RTI is only the first step; implementing it, is another, and to that end, the demand for information by the media, the academia and the civil society at large is equally critical. When it comes to transparency, supply does not always create its own demand.