The office of the Punjab ombudsman is a big hope for the poverty-stricken strata in the most populous province. Besides protecting public rights by dispensing justice in the shortest possible time and without jeopardising the efficacy of public policies, it functions to address the plethora of issues relating to maladministration, individual or institutional corruption and mala fide intentions of the government officials. It also ensures the protection of state assets in the shape of retrieval of government lands while safeguarding overseas Pakistanis’ rights.
The constitution of Pakistan has empowered this office to inspect any place, government office, or documents and decide the matters there and then. It also has judicial powers and could punish an accused on contempt as superior courts do.
Punjab Ombudsman Major (retd) Azam Salman Khan has reformed the office to speed up justice. He has introduced a helpline 1050, which is accessible 24/7. The official correspondence and record is available online, and there is no concept of a bureaucratic snafu.
The poor have easy access to this office in 36 districts for solutions to their problems. This office has also played a pivotal role in evacuating illegal occupants from the state lands across the province.
The office is easily and comfortably accessible to the general public and all concerned 24/7, giving considerable rise in the total number of complaints received and disposed. Due to systemic initiatives and concerted efforts, a rise was witnessed in the receipt of complaints in 2021 compared to 2020. As per the annual report, in 2021, 17,968 complaints had been received against 12,145 complaints received in 2020, which is 48% on the higher side. Likewise, determined hard work boosted disposal of complaints by 49.5% in 2021 – a total of 17,654 complaints were disposed of against 11,817 complaints disposed the year before.
It may also be appropriate to juxtapose the data for 2021 with the average data for the last 24 years. In the last 24 years, a total number of 331,089 complaints were received, out of which 329,715 complaints were disposed of with an average of 13,795 complaints in terms of receipt and 13,738 complaints in terms of disposal per year. However, in the year 2021, the number of receipts of complaints was 17,968, which is 30.25% higher than the average number of complaints per year during the last 24 years.
During the year under report, the main focus remained, among other issues, on the redressal of grievances of widows, legal heirs of deceased government servants, students and other marginalised segments of society suffering from maladministration and corrupt practices on part of government agencies. Due to the hectic efforts of the ombudsman’s office, besides redressal of general nature grievances of the public, total financial relief/benefits in monetary terms worth Rs1,452 million was provided to the aggrieved persons and the state. Out of this, benefits of Rs605 million have been provided to the complainants of various categories in terms of financial assistance, service benefits, family pension, scholarships, compensations and contractors’ payments, etc.
Similarly, as a consequence of this office’s interventions on various complaints, state lands measuring 17,129 kanal valuing approximately Rs847 million were recovered from illegal occupants in 36 districts of the province. Thus, this office played its role by contributing optimally towards the cause of aggrieved persons as well as safeguarding the public exchequer in a befitting manner.
It is quite satisfying to mention that some of the initiatives taken during 2020 started producing the desired e-governance outcomes in 2021. There is a result-oriented outcome of e-governance through an in-house built cloud-based Ombudsman Punjab Management Information System (OPMIS) and implementation of unconventional compliance on operational work through the ease of E-Filing Office Automation System (E-FOAS) with the support of the IT wing.
It is worth mentioning that complaints of overseas Pakistanis are processed expeditiously on a priority basis. For this purpose, this office has not only developed a dedicated Complaint Redressal Flow Mechanism on the Complaint Management Information System (CMIS) but also shared it with the Punjab Overseas Pakistanis Commission to facilitate the processing of complaints of Pakistanis residing abroad.
As a part of ongoing initiatives to ensure improved service delivery for the complainants through a conducive working environment with the intent of institutional development, the construction of office buildings of five regional offices in Mianwali, DG Khan, Muzaffargarh, Jhang, and Attock have already been started in the current financial year’s ADP. Besides that, a case for transfer of state land in seven districts namely Sahiwal, Gujranwala, Kasur, Vehari, Toba Tek Singh, Rajanpur and Bahawalnagar has been initiated and is under process in the Board of Revenue, while the case for transfer of land concerning Gujrat district has been taken up with the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department. Construction of buildings of regional offices would certainly save the amount being spent on rent of these offices.
Many young people also approach this office for public sector jobs under 17-A of the Punjab Civil Servants (Appointment & Conditions of Service) Rules, 1974. Because of the prevalent circumstances regarding online abuse of children, the Wafaqi Mohtasib constituted a task force that had prepared a bill for necessary legal reforms and the same had been approved by the national assembly. The task force had also prepared a national plan of action for awareness-raising. The Wafaqi Mohtasib has decided to take on board the Punjab ombudsman for the implementation of this plan in the province. This prototype provincial plan of action would be replicated in other provinces.
The ombudsman should mention the departments that fail to comply with its directions. There should be a transplant mechanism for the appointment of advisors in the office – like advertisements in newspapers and competitive processes, etc.
There’s a need to further facilitate and disseminate the greater cause of easy and free access to justice, so that common people can approach this forum. The ombudsman should also recommend proposals on analytical and empirical data basis on how different departments may avoid the same mistakes in future. There should be a separate accountability wing in the ombudsman office to monitor, inspect and probe the drainage of public funds by departments. The hazardous working conditions of private workers, right to information dilemmas, and complicated official business may have smooth sailing after its inception. The no-go areas to this office may by legislation be included in its jurisdiction.