Cook, The Rice And
The Father Of Pakistan's
By Beena Sarwar
11 March, 2004
"Can you imagine
a situation where you give your cook money to buy rice, and he refuses
to give you the bill, or tell you how much rice he
bought?" asks Roland D'Souza, an engineering
consultant and human rights activist in Karachi, Pakistan's
largest city and its economic centre.
D'Souza uses this
analogy to illustrate the significance of a
basic right - freedom of information - in his capacity as a
volunteer for Shehri (Citizen), a Karachi-based non-
government organisation dealing with civic issues. "If there
is one thing that can turn things around for Pakistan, it
is this freedom," he says.
But the analogy
goes far beyond local governments. Pakistan
today is rocked by a nuclear proliferation scandal over the
activities of Dr A.Q. Khan, a metallurgist whom the military
and political establishments for years held up as
the 'father' of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
Now accused of peddling
nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and
North Korea, Khan is virtually incommunicado in his own
house, pardoned by president and army chief General Pervez
"Why is it
that all the rogues get away with everything?"
asks Ameena, an elderly housemaid in Karachi.
One reason is the
lack of freedom of information. The nuclear
programme is a defence matter - out of bounds to even elected
MPs. Details of Pakistan's military expenditure (about 67% of the budget)
are not discussed when the annual budget is presented - the defence
budget is "routinely dismissed in one line", complains Sherry
Rehman, a member of parliament. MPs cannot even requisition information
on any related issue.
"In the case
of the cook and the rice," explains D'Souza, "it's very clear
who the master is, so the question of the cook withholding
that information doesn't arise. But we citizens don't see ourselves
owners of Pakistan, so we don't demand accountability from our servants
and let them get away with it."
In the wake of the
nuclear scandal, Musharraf publicly chastised the press for linking
the army with nuclear proliferation. "In the first place,"
he told journalists at a press conference, "you should play a
more responsible role in this matter and secondly, even if for the sake
argument it is accepted that the government and the army were involved
the [nuclear proliferation] affair, do you think it will serve our national
interest to shout about it from the roof-top?"
Tensions with India
are cited as a main reason for the country's huge
military expenditure - tensions that are costing both countries dearly,
major implications for efforts to combat poverty. Pakistan's average
expenditure on education has stood at 2.7% of Gross Domestic
Product over the past decade (as compared to the 3.1% during the 1980s),
far below the UN-recommended 4%. Spending on health care, at only 0.7
cent of the Gross National Product (2002-03), is the lowest in South
and among the lowest in the world.
and political activist Mohammad Noman
sees a link between defence expenditure and poverty: "There's a
relationship of resource allocation to development," he stresses.
But none of
these expenditures are debated in parliament, and "defence kickbacks
are never made public", he adds.
was the first South Asian country to
introduce a Freedom of Information Ordinance in September 2002 - that
under a military government. A caretaker setup passed its predecessor
in 1997, which lapsed under the subsequent elected government.
But analysts criticise
the 2002 ordinance as more restrictive
than empowering. It applies only to federal institutions and
limits the information that ordinary Pakistanis can obtain from official
sources: excluded are "records relating to defence forces, defence
installations or connected therewith or ancillary to defence or national
At a recent High
Court hearing of habeas corpus petitions
moved by the relatives of six officials connected with the nuclear
programme, who are in official custody, the government claimed "privilege
respect of all materials and information on which the order of the detention
The ordinance cannot
be invoked here: besides matters related
to defence, it excludes "notings on files", "minutes
of meetings", "any
intermediary opinion or recommendation", and - for good measure
other record which the Federal Government may, in public interest, exclude
from the purview of this Ordinance."
All this virtually
renders it "toothless", says Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, a
former Supreme Court judge who drafted the 1997 law. "Freedom of
information is part and parcel of freedom of expression, one of the
fundamental rights of the Pakistani constitution" - but that is
a link that he
says the present ordinance does not recognise.
There are many such
fundamental rights guaranteed by the
constitution that clash with socio-economic realities and tribal traditions.
The right to education is routinely flouted as parents send children
work. Legislation in the Punjab and Sindh provinces making primary education
mandatory is neither enforced nor monitored. The absence of health
facilities makes a mockery of the right to health care. Young men and
marrying against their parents' wishes risk being killed for betraying
family 'honour' - despite a Supreme Court ruling that a Muslim woman
entitled to choose her husband without her parents' consent.
this culture of secrecy some small, but
potentially far-reaching battles are being won at local levels. In the
port city of Karachi, for instance, civic action has helped counter
powerful builders' mafia.
It happened in 1996
when the NGO Shehri forced the local government to constitute a legally-mandated
committee to oversee building
works, which in turn set up a public information counter, where approval
plans for buildings, lists of unauthorised constructions and legal
requirements were made available.
want to purchase an apartment in a new apartment
block. But before you invest in it, you get hold of the building plans,
and find that the approval is only for three floors - and you were being
sold a flat on the fourth floor," explains D'Souza.
Although the builder's
lobby has struck back to make the counter virtually ineffective, the
move has created an awareness about the
are interested," says D'Souza, "they can stand up and force
the government to do certain things. With information, it is more
difficult for them to get away with it."/
Beena Sarwar is
a journalist based in Karachi. She writes on
women's rights and human rights issues for The News, a national daily.
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