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Blowing "OFF" the Whistle

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WhisleMany people are cynical about the rampant corruption in India. But there are those that have exposed corruption and some have paid with their lives for doing so. Even after independence, it took 64 years for Indian Parliament to ensure human right to security by drafting the Whistleblower Bill which is supposed to protect those who expose the crooks. Yet, the draft bill is insipid and has clauses that could kill the very essence of protecting the whistle blowers and exposing the corrupt. Explains BANSI MEHTA.

 

Dressed in crisp blue shirt and black pant, former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and crusader against corruption, Yogendra Pratap Singh is browsing across the proposed Whistleblower Bill (WB), on his computer. His facial expression mirrors a sense of disappointment if not downright disgust. "The WB tabled in the Parliament, is a joke, it is not strong enough to do any good. A whistle blower will continue to be looked down as the one who has created a mammoth of fraud and hence, the entire system will continue to be against him," said Singh.

For someone who has been a personal witness to the corrosion of the Indian police system not to mention the entrenched bureaucracy, Singh is amazed that the WB bill does not even define the word 'Whistleblower'. Not without reason though. One who wants to make disclosure will be called a "complainant".

A whistleblower is someone who exposes wrongdoing, fraud, corruption or mismanagement or any illicit activity. This could be a person who is a government employee or working in a private company. Singh had blown off the lid in many high profile cases, one of, which was the US-64 scam in which the UTI bank repeatedly made dubious investments, including some in contravention of rules and regulations. Countries like US have the whistleblower protection bill since in late nineties, while UK has it in year 1998. For India, it took the death of Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath Shanmugham to generate a public outcry for having a whistleblower protection bill. Dubey, an engineer with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was killed as he had blown whistle over exposing corruption in NHAI by writing a letter to office of the then Prime Minister, A.B.Vajpayee. Despite, specifically asking for his identity to be kept secret, the letter was forwarded to the concerned department without concealing it. Later, that year, Dubey was murdered.

In another appalling incident Manjunath Shanmugham, an IIM graduate was murdered in November 2005 for exposing the adulteration of petrol and the role of Mafia behind it. With another incident falling out in a span of year, it generated a pressing need for having a Public Interests Disclosure
Act or WB in the country.

The Supreme Court asked the government to issue an office order and later appointed Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to act as a nodal agency to administer complaints regarding corruption. In August 2010, the WB was tabled in the Parliament. While, news channels were running stories of
having the WB as the landmark act in ensuring human right to security, the whistleblowers, activists and jurists soon got disillusioned.

There are various sections in the WB, which have left less hope for the whistleblower to make disclosures. Activists have slammed the act that it has no power to nail corrupt people and ensure security to the whistleblower.

The poor old WB, if he or she gathers the courage to blow the whistle will need to produce evidence to support "allegations" and if one fails to do so he can be imprisoned up to two years and fined up to Rs 30,000. Worse, the CVC or State Vigilance Commission (SVC) that are currently supposed to only
investigate instances of government corruption will now demand an identity proof from people who submit complaints. Activists believe that there is a large distinction between a person who makes a "disclosure" and one who makes a "complaint".

"All a whistleblower wants is a simple investigation of the people of whom he has made disclosures. It may be a mere suspicion. Instead, of undertaking the investigation, CVC will act against the whistleblower," said Singh.

"The clause of imprisoning a whistleblower is very discouraging as he is already aware that his disclosure will be risking his life. Instead of law protecting him, he has to be careful that he does not get entangled with the law," said Shailesh Gandhi, Chief Information Commissioner. He further said that it is impractical for someone who wants to disclose any wrongdoing to approach only the CVC or SVC. Equally, corrupt officers will not be nailed until the police reforms take place in which they have the authority to take immediate action regardless of whom the disclosure is made on. "We must not forget the people in the CVC and SVC are the people who belong to the same rot of bureaucracy," added Gandhi.

There are many such sections, creating hurdles for a lay man to voice against corruption. Activists and jurists believe that the travails of a whistleblower are many, the proposed WB does not even ensure in making it bit hopeful for a person who prepares to fight single handedly against a system of totality where one is well aware of the consequences beforehand.

For Ravi Srivastav, ex-employee of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) who exposed adulteration of petrol and the corruption of Rs 200 crore in the company, the journey after blowing off the whistle has been dreadful. "I distinctly remember my youngest daughter telling me one day that I must have done something wrong and therefore I have been thrown out of the company. Some other family members had commented that I had jeopardize their future prospects," Ravi Srivastav.

As the Treasurer at the HPCL, during May 2008 him, Srivastav along with other members of his team exposed one adulteration marker launched by Ministry of Petroleum. Besides, making disclosures about marker, he also exposed HPCL's serious irregularities in procurement, specification and implementation. The clause where the CVC or SVC is "of the opinion" that there are no "sufficient grounds" for proceeding with the inquiry, then, as per Section 4(6), it shall close the matter. This clause has disgusted the activists the most. CVC and SVC are also empowered to do shut the case if they found the complaint as 'frivolous' or 'vexatious'. Supreme Court Advocate, Abdul Qureshi said that the social fabric of the country has started rotting. CVC can turn down any case under the pretext of the disclosure being 'frivolous' and protect the corrupt official.

"The WB proposes to turn the CVC and SVC into a sort of passive court where each whistleblower must struggle to prove his point. This violates several fundamental rights of the whistle-blower as a citizen," said Krishnaraj Rao, a Mumbai based Right To Information (RTI) activist. The only ray of hope for activist and jurists is clause whereby the complaints made under WB could be made for all offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) 1988. The provisions of PCA 1988 are applicable to a very wide range of persons, including members of the executive, judiciary, election commission and private individuals who participate in acts of corruption.

The WB was made available on the website of the central government's Department of Personnel and Training (DPT) and was open to suggestions and objections from the general public till September 30.

"No such WB would work in country like India where there are strong allegations against the Supreme Court judges of the country. Efforts needs to be made to reduce the agony of the whistleblower through a process of social engineering since statutes just cannot provide even a fraction of relief to a whistleblower," explains Singh.

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