Whistleblowers In India: Will You Blow The Whistle?

Posted on November 23, 2011

By Neetha Kurup:

When one hears the name Erin Brockovich, one is immediately inclined to think about Julia Roberts’ Academy Award winning role in the eponymous movie released in 2000. Brockovich is known for helping to build the case against the US West Coast energy corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, proving them responsible for the groundwater contamination in Hinkley, a small town in California.

Julian Assange is yet another popular person in the 21st century. He is the founder of Wikileaks–a website that is known for releasing confidential government documents about the Afghanistan War, corruption in Kenya, among other subjects.

The term to describe these two individuals would be ‘Whistleblowers’. A whistleblower is one who informs the public or the concerned authorities of suspected illegal activities. These illegal activities could range from violation of simple law to fraud and corruption.

Whistleblowers are sometimes praised for their brave actions in upholding honesty and sometimes referred to as snitches or ‘tattle-tales’. Either way, the whistleblower is under risk of retaliation from the people or organization which they have accused.

For example, a police officer accused Mayawati, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, of embezzling money from the government funds for personal use. The man was thereafter locked up in a mental asylum and cited ‘insane’.

A more appalling scenario is that of IIT graduate Satyendra Kumar Dubey and IIM graduate Shanmughan Manjunath.

Dubey was a project director at National Highways Authority of India who brought to light the corruption involved in the Golden Quadrilateral highway construction project. He discovered that the hired contractors subcontracted the work to cheaper organizations of lower quality. He received threats but he went on, going as far as writing to the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On 27 November 2003 he was murdered while returning from a wedding. Three of the suspects questioned by the CBI ended up missing or poisoned to death.

Manjunath was an IIM graduate working for the Indian Oil Corporation who had sealed off two petrol pumps when he discovered that they were selling diesel adulterated with petrol. When these opened a month later, he decided to do a surprise raid. Manjunath was found murdered three days later in November, 2005.

Following the two deaths there were cries for justice in India and abroad (owing to the IIT, IIM status of the victims). Pressure mounted on the government to introduce a law to protect those who wished to uphold justice and, thus, in April 2006 India became the fifth country in the world (after UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand) to introduce the law to protect whistleblowers who give information on corruption in public life. The Chief Vigilance Commission (CVC) was authorized to receive all complaints regarding corruption in public life that would affect the Central Government. Leakage of the name or details of a whistleblower was made illegal. The CVC was empowered to carry out preliminary investigation into the complaint and initiate the necessary actions against the concerned government employees.

But has this been effective?

In 2010, Satish Shetty–a leading Right to Information (RTI) activist was found murdered. He was responsible for the exposure of many land scams in the state of Maharashtra. Other social activists have been threatened as well as attacked.

All hope is not lost however. The Manjunath Shanmugam Trust and the S. K. Dubey Foundation for Fight Against Corruption have been set up by the alumnus of IIM and IIT respectively to honour the bravery of Manjunath and Dubey and to carry forward their legacy. The Satyendra K. Dubey Memorial Award and The Manjunath Shanmughan Integrity Award are given to those who uphold values of human integrity and rectify evident corruption. All that is needed is the integrity of the individual citizen. With the formation of the Jan Lokpal Bill, corruption in India could be seriously dealt with a blow.

But as all other laws in the Indian Constitution, all that remains to be seen is the proper implementation. The RTI, the Jan Lokpal Bill and the Whistleblower Protection Act are all strong laws, but without a strong law enforcement agency they might as well be just words on paper.

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