Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani on Thursday directed the government to furnish a reply on Monday to the reported crisis of furnace oil in Pakistan following massive fall in use of the fuel in production of electricity, preferring LNG to it while 15 oil ships were already docked at the harbour.
PPP Senator Taj Haider raised the issue as a matter of public importance and lamented that despite over 50 per cent fall in oil prices in the world market, the circular debt has soared to Rs414 billion owing to absence of planning and management.
He claimed that there was a discussion on sovereign guarantees in the face of circular debt, whereas LNG was being imported massively without planning and this had substantially reduced consumption of furnace oil. On the contrary, he continued, 15 ships with furnace oil had docked at the harbour but could not be offloaded due to shortage of storage capacity, resulting in charge of heavy demurrage by the ships.
Haider feared there was a possibility of shutting the three oil refineries. He wanted the chair to refer the matter to the Ministry of Water and Power. However, Rabbani asked the Senate Secretariat to send verbatim what the senator had stated to Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources, who should respond to it in the House on Monday.
Earlier, Chairman Special Committee of the Senate on Right to Information (RTI) PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar laid in the House the report along with the draft of RTI law, which he said, not only cut across the political divide but had extensive and intensive meaning, enabling citizens to have access information not only to federal government departments but also to parliament, the courts, the NGOs that received any assistance from the government in any form.
“For the first time, a provision has been incorporated to end the practice of seeking blanket immunity from disclosing information in the name of national security,” he said. He pointed out that the universally-recognised Johannesburg principles that strike a balance between considerations of national security and public good had been relied upon in ending the practice of hushing up information behind the facade of national security.
“Under the law, reasons will have to be recorded in writing as to how considerations of security outweighed public good and even then it will be challenge-able before the Information Commission,” he said.
The plea of national security, he noted, will not apply if the information sought related to corruption or if the life of a citizen was in imminent and real danger and information about defence planning, deployment of forces and defence installations and related defence and security matters, however, will be exempt from disclosure.
“The bill also provides for Information Commission for deciding appeals but rejects the notion that its members must be from the judiciary alone,” he said.
He said that the underlying principles of the RTI Bill were ensuring maximum disclosure, minimum exemptions, the right to appeal and applicability across the board to all state institutions, including even NGOs receiving government support in any form. Likewise, he explained, willful destruction of official record with a view to withholding information from the public has been made a criminal offence carrying a jail term of two years.
Members of the Information Commission, Babar said, would be appointed by the prime minister but he would not be able to do it arbitrarily, making appointments from any single section of society but will have to select one member each from three distinct areas of society including former civil military bureaucracy, retired judges and civil society organizations. The prime minister will also have no powers to dismiss any Commission, as this power would rest with the Parliament.
“Public record now includes information about transactions, acquisition and disposal of property, grant of licences, allotments and contracts awarded by a public body to name a few, he said. It also includes noting on the files and minutes of the meetings but not before a final decision has been taken on any issue,” he said.
It is pertinent that the bill overrides all other laws and thus the outdated Official Secrets Act of 1923 is made redundant for purpose of withholding information. However, Babar said, the real issue was not making a law but that of the culture of secrecy and of sacred cows.
“Questions asked in the Senate in Musharraf days like whether inquiry had been held on Kargil, whether defence officers declared their assets to their respective headquarters and whether there is a law under which ISI operated were not replied to, on the ground that national security was at risk,” he said.
Now such questions, he pointed out, could not be swept under the carpet on the ground of endangering national security. However, he wondered whether the powerful and mighty would submit to law and answer such questions, was yet to be seen.
“I plead before all, the high and the low, the powerful and the weak alike, to respect the legislation if and when passed by the parliament,” he maintained. Later, in reply to a question from media on the Information Commission, he said all judges were honourable but we do not subscribe to the notion that they alone possess the integrity and competence to be members of Information Commission.
“We believe that there are outstanding men and women in other walks of life possessing no less integrity and competence and who too qualify to to be members of the Information Commission. There are honourable and competent men and women of great integrity in all other strata of society who can sit as members of Information Commission along with retired judges,” he said.