Abdul Majeed Niazi
The sanctity and inviolability of human rights is the essential feature of the concept of ombudsmanship and the means to achieving the ultimate goal of good governance. Maladministration and bad governance are two sides of the same coin.
Both breed in an environment of favouritism, discrimination, corruption and exploitation where human rightsis the first casualty. Maladministration grows in the absence of human rights while the continued violation of human rights further erodes the system of accountability and dispensation of justice. The role of ombudsman institutions, therefore, is fundamental to breaking this vicious circle and establishing the rule of law and good governance in any society.
Pakistan is among the few pioneering countries in South Asia that have successfully introduced the Ombudsman’s institution to ensure dispensation of inexpensive and expeditious administrative justice to promote good governance. It was on 24th January 1983, that the Office of Wafaqi Mohtasib (Ombudsman) was established with the explicit objectives to diagnose, investigate, rectify and redress any injustice done to a person through maladministration by the federal government agencies.
In this long journey of four decades, the institution has followed a positive trajectory alongside taking steps to enhance its efficiency and efficacy. It has, over the years, fine tuned its complaints handling mechanism comprising investigation of complaints, appraisal, review and implementation of recommendations of the Wafaqi Mohtasib. It is now fully capable of resolving complaints of maladministration in large numbers, reaching out to the complainants and holding public hearings (KhuliKatcheries) at their door steps, informal resolution of disputes, inspection of various federal government agencies to improve their service delivery and undertaking studies to ascertain the root causes of maladministration and recommending measures to rectify the same.
Today, in addition to the Wafaqi Mohtasib’s Head office at Islamabad, 17 regional offices and two complaint collection centers at Wana (South Waziristan) and Sadda(District Kurram) are discharging their statutory functions.During the period January to December 2022, incidence of complaints rose from 110,405 to the highest ever number of 164,174 (49% increase) and disposal reached an all-time high of 157,770 as compared to the figure of 106,823 of the year 2021 (47.7% increase). Under the Informal Resolution of Disputes (IRD) project which was launched in April last year, 1114 cases have been resolved while 266 are under process.This Office has completed 28 studies/reports which are at various stages of implementation. These include, working of Central Directorate of National Savings, Government Procurement System, disbursement of pensions andjail reforms particularly, the living conditions of women and children in jails. The most recent study reports relate to controlling the population growth and addressing the plight of street children in Islamabad Capital Territory.
The Outreach Complaint Resolution (OCR) system, where, the designated officers visit various districts to redress grievances at the doorsteps of the complainants, has been further strengthened by organizing KhuliKatcheries in remote areas. This provides general public an opportunity to raise their grievances in the presence of representatives of agencies closer to their homes and get immediate relief. Under the Integrated Complaint Resolution System (ICR), the Wafaqi Mohtasib’s Secretariat (WMS) has developed interface with 181 government agencies whereby any complaint which remains unresolved with the agency beyond 30 days, is automatically transferred to the Federal Ombudsman’s Complaint Management Information System (CMIS) for further processing and disposal.
The online complaints rose from 25,820 in the year 2021 to 51,112 in 2022 showing 97% increase; and the ICR complaints registered enormous increase from 46,829 to 91,496 (95.4% increase) whereas the number of ICR cases transferred to WMS from the interface of other agencies also increased from 16,103 to 18,107 in the same period. This means that the agencies concerned resolved 73,389 complaints, at their own, through their respective complaint management systems which not only reflects the efficacy of the ICR system but also an improvement in service delivery of the agencies concerned.
Grievance Commissioner’s office for Overseas Pakistanis in the WMS offers an institutional framework for addressing individual complaints and systemic issues faced by Overseas Pakistanis. One Window Facilitation Desks (OWFD) established on the direction of Wafaqi Mohtasib at all international airports of the country to facilitate Overseas Pakistanis and their families travelling to or from Pakistan have been functioning well. In addition, Focal Persons have been appointed in Pakistan Missions abroad to personally hear and resolve problems faced by the Pakistani diaspora. It is encouraging to note that as against 58,990 complaints of Overseas Pakistanis resolved in 2021, a total of 137,647 complaints were disposed of in 2022 showing (133% increase). Out of these, 118,290 complaints were resolved/ queries answered at OWFDs as against 45,037 in 2021.
Today, ombudsmanship is an essential feature of every modern democratic society. The structure, scope and powers of ombudsman, however, vary from one society to another and is directly related to the larger social, political and legal system operating in that country. The legal framework of the Federal Ombudsman’s institution in Pakistan provides the necessary support in performing its statutory functions in an effective and efficient manner. This includes provisions allowing ombudsman to undertake any investigation of his own motion into any allegation and to stay operation of the impugned order/decision for a period not exceeding 60 days. Likewise, Wafaqi Mohtasib enjoys same powers, mutatis mutandis, as the Supreme Court to punish for contempt. Similarly, no court or authority has jurisdiction to question the validity of any action taken under the President’s Order No.1 of 1983 or grant any injunction or stay in relation to any proceedings pending before the Ombudsman.
The concept of ombudsmanship has been replicated into other areas of governance as well. Currently, 14 ombudsman institutions dealing with matters relating to banking, insurances, taxation and protection against harassment of women at workplace are successfully functioning in the country.
Pakistan has also played a pivotal role in promoting ombudsmanship in Asia and the Muslim world. Encouraged by its experience and interaction with International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) in different capacities, Pakistan hosted the first Asian Ombudsman Conference at Islamabad establishing the Asian Ombudsman Association (AOA) in April 1996. The Asian Ombudsman Association is a major non-political, independent, democratic and professional body of international character representing more than two thirds of the world population. Wafaqi Mohtasib is the current President of the AOA and its Secretariat is housed in the Wafaqi Mohtasib Secretariat. The ombudsman fraternity witnessed another important development when Pakistan took the initiative of promoting ombudsmanship in the Muslim World from the platform of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC Ombudsman Association (OICOA) was formed in 2014.
Federal Ombudsman’s institution is fundamentally the poor man’s court. There is no requirement to hire services of an advocate nor the complainants have to face lengthy legal processes as the cases are disposed of within the prescribed limit of sixty days. Over 1.9 million households have so far benefited from its services which offer groundswell of support for its operations. Providing prompt relief to those facing administrative excesses, discrimination, exploitation, negligence and inefficiency at the hands of the government agencies or its employees is central to the concept of ombudsmanship and the means to achieving the ultimate goal of good governance.