Protect The Whistleblowers, Don”t Punish Them!

Posted on August 26, 2011 in Specials

By Alam Bains:

Sanjeev Bhatt, an IPS officer in the Gujarat police who filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court against the state government, alleging that the state government, instead of prosecuting the guilty in the communal riots of 2002, has been secretly leaking information to the defense counsel, was suspended on the grounds of unauthorized absence from duty.

Another senior Gujarat police officer Rahul Sharma is being pulled up for passing on information to the panel probing the same riots. He is being charged with Violation of the Official Secrets Act, although the Gujarat government, after media coverage has denied chargesheeting him.

M.N Vijaykumar, an IAS officer has received 40 death threats and has been transferred seven times in a span of 10 months for exposing a Rs 344 crore scam in which subsidies meant for electricity for the poor were being used by the rich.

Amarnath Pandey, an RTI activist, was shot but survived when he filed an RTI application enquiring about the details of a local project in which a huge sum of money was reportedly embezzled. Earlier, a truck had tried to run him over.

What is the common attribute of all these people? They are whistleblowers. A whistleblower is a person who exposes a wrongdoing, fraud, corruption or mismanagement. Their stories reveal what happens to people who stand up against corruption or any wrongdoing. These are a few stories which have caught the attention of the media, but there are thousands of others who have either lost their lives of have been tortured for their courage and conviction.

In the year 2004, an engineer with the National Highways Authority of India, Satyendra Kumar Dubey was murdered when he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee, exposing corruption in the construction of highways. He had asked for his identity to be kept secret but the letter was forwarded to various departments without masking his name. This was the first case which highlighted the importance of the protection of whistleblowers and led to the Supreme Court pressing the government into issuing an order, the Public interest Disclosures and Protection of Informers Resolution 2004, designating the CVC as nodal agency to handle complaints on corruption.

Five years later, the Cabinet cleared the Whistleblowers Protection Act which intends to protect the whistleblowers and facilitate the disclosure of information and uncover corruption and deceptive practices that exist in government organizations.

The bill, which is yet to become a law gains importance in today’s scenario as we can see how whistleblowers are being targeted, but the bill lacks public debate and consultation. Moreover, it has some serious drawbacks.

Firstly, the scope of the bill is very limited. Private sector, intelligence agencies, civil society organisations like NGO’s and armed forces have been excluded. Looking at private sector scams like the Satyam scam and the IPL, it is necessary to include private sector in the ambit of the proposed law. Moreover, human rights violations by the armed forces as well as corruption cases within the armed forces need to be accounted for. Secondly, according to the bill, protection will be provided to a whistleblower only after he/she makes a complaint. So an RTI activist who is threatened for just filing an application under the RTI Act is not protected by it. Thirdly, disclosure has been made time bound. The bill states that no complaint will be probed if it is made 12 months after the petitioner got to know of it, or five years after the date of alleged offence. But if we look at some of the most important cases, like the Bhopal gas tragedy or the Godhra riots, the time limit of five years might be over but important disclosures continue to made.Time period does not diminish the importance of these issues. Fourthly, investigation is not time bound. Apart from these factors, there is limited protection to the whistleblower.His/Her identity can be revealed at many junctures. Moreover, it is not always the whistleblower who is targetted, but also the family. The bill takes no account of that.

The nodal agency for handling complaints of corruption, the Central Vigilance Commission, works in an advisory capacity. It is not an investigative agency and will need to outsource investigation to the police or the CBI. As long as they are under the control of politicians and bureaucrats, we cannot be assured of a proper investigation as well as adequate protection for the whistleblower.

Hence, we can clearly see that the draft bill is flawed. It has become really important to ensure that the bill which seeks to protect the whistleblowers is effective rather than just give an impression of providing protection. The need of the hour is to debate and discuss the bill, bring in the required corrections and come up with a draft which makes disclosure of information easier and safer, which protects the whistleblowers rather than victimise them.