Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Jan 25, 2017

A regressive move The government has reportedly decided to curtail the powers of the Federal Ombudsman as a reaction to the institution’s pointing out irregularities and corruption in the federal and provincial ministries and departments. To implement the decision, the government has drafted a Bill to amend the Establishment of the Office of Wafaqi Mohtasib Order 1983 and the Federal Ombudsman Institutional Reforms Act 2013. The Bill, titled Federal Ombudsmen Institutions (Amendment) Act 2017, is soon to be tabled in the National Assembly. The Bill seeks to restrict the Federal Ombudsman from ‘interfering’ in the affairs of the provincial governments and regional offices. That means the Federal Ombudsman would not be able to appoint provincial ombudsmen or set up regional offices. Further, the Federal Tax Ombudsman would no longer be able to serve as acting Federal Ombudsman when the latter is absent. Both objectives would be met by deleting the relevant clauses in the 1983 and 2013 Acts. What has prompted the government to embark on a move that threatens to undo the good work done by the Federal Ombudsman over the years since the office was created? It seems the Federal Ombudsman has irked the bureaucracy by taking measures to provide for a virtual alternative judicial system that has addressed bottlenecks and irregularities in federal ministries such as interior and foreign affairs, some provincial departments, and the police. The present Federal Ombudsman, Salman Faruqi, has also authored two reports on police and jail reforms that the Supreme Court ordered the provincial governments to implement in their respective provinces. According to the Federal Ombudsman, his office addressed a record 94,000 complaints in 2016, against an average of 16,000 in previous years. To address cases of maladministration and injustice in all ministries and government offices, ‘grievance officers’ not below the rank of BS-19 have been designated to register and hear complaints against these departments on behalf of the Federal Ombudsman. Since October 1, 2016, the grievance officers have been empowered under the Federal Ombudsman Act to hear and decide cases. Information stands and boards have been installed at the receptions of all ministries and departments for public awareness. A list of all focal persons/grievance officers of ministries and departments is available on the Federal Ombudsman’s website. This month, the Federal Ombudsman’s office sought the President’s help in extending its network to the newly installed district and union councils, but the proposal could not materialise, reportedly because a PML-N President thought such a move would end up with the government being blamed for any irregularities thus exposed. Political loyalty and expediency has trumped an institutionalisation of the redressal mechanism provided by the Federal Ombudsman at the local bodies level, not the least because this thinking is in conformity with how the government wants to clip the Federal Ombudsman’s wings. The curtailing of the Federal Ombudsman’s powers has been triggered as the revenge of the bureaucracy exposed by the office against an institution that provides free and quick redressal of grievances to citizens against the bureaucracy’s maladministration and injustices. In this instance it seems the bureaucracy has persuaded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the need to save them from the Federal Ombudsman’s ‘interference’. Not that the prime minister needed much persuasion on this score, considering the recent government move to bring sundry independent regulators under the umbrella of their respective ministries. The institution of Federal Ombudsman has proved to be a source of relief/redress for maladministration and injustice when the judicial system is virtually broken, expensive, bogged down in cumbersome procedures and interminable delays. This has proved an unmitigated boon for all aggrieved citizens, but especially the lower middle class and the poor. What is needed is not a curtailment of the Federal Ombudsman’s powers and outreach to the provincial and local bodies level but a consolidation and expansion of the office’s role. It is ironic and inexplicable that a government that implicitly recognises the problems of a broken judicial system by debating an informal dispute resolution system should be so insecure and mindful of the ‘Laat sahib’s’ interests as to sacrifice one of the few channels of redress and justice enjoyed by ordinary citizens.

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