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Empowering the Watchdogs

The real fighters against corruption are the whistle-blowers.


An important, yet overlooked, aspect of the recent Nirav Modi case, where the jeweller and his associates have been charged with a bank fraud estimated at₹11,400 crore, is the role of the whistle-blower. In 2016, Bengaluru-based Hari Prasad had alerted the Prime Minister’s Office and the Registrar of Companies about major irregularities by Nirav Modi’s partner, Mehul Choksi, owner of Gitanjali Gems. Despite this, no action was taken and Choksi’s name only emerged after Prasad spoke to the media about his
earlier warning.

That the authorities did not take these warnings seriously is now a familiar story. Starting from 2003, when a young engineer, Satyendra Dubey, was murdered for exposing corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project, the fate of a series of whistle-blowers has been dire. While some like Dubey are killed, others have faced threats and violence, or their warnings are ignored. These incidents receive episodic media and public attention.

Although the Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2014 was passed by the Lok Sabha, it was not operationalised. In 2015, the Narendra Modi government introduced an amended version of the law that has diluted significant provisions. This is surprising considering that the government has often proclaimed its objective to fight corruption and even acknowledged the role of whistle-blowers. In 2015, Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha had told the Rajya Sabha that the government was going to deal with the matter of black money on the basis of information given by whistle-blowers.

Despite such acknowledgement, the amended act does not shield whistle-blowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). It says that information that affects the sovereignty, integrity, security and economic interests of the state shall not be investigated and that certain kinds of information will not form part of the disclosure unless it is obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. This includes information about intellectual property and trade secrets. Incidentally, Section 8(1) of the RTI Act also does not permit information to citizens on the same grounds as the OSA, which includes information that is forbidden to be published by a court of law, that would endanger the life or physical safety of any person, certain cabinet meeting deliberations, and anything that would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the legislature.

As the report Whistleblowing in Europe: Legal Protections for Whistleblowers in the EU points out, the lack of strong protection mechanisms and a loophole-free law to protect whistle-blowers harms all citizens, the economy and the environment. It points out that the lack of such a law “would rob Europe of a valuable partner in fighting corruption: the people.” As far as India is concerned, whether it is the public or corporate private sector, it is whistle-blowers and RTI activists who have contributed the most to exposing large-scale corruption. Several honest and committed bureaucrats and police personnel risked their lives and careers to make public information that was sought to be hidden, people like the police officer Sanjeev Bhat in Gujarat and the Indian Forest Service officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi, who exposed a number of irregularities with regard to postings in Haryana and at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. In the corporate world, where corruption has been exposed, several leading companies have whistle-blower protection policies. However, whether these are merely on paper or practised is a moot point. The recent example of an airline company firing the staff member who publicised a video clip showing other staff members assaulting a passenger suggests that all companies do not implement these policies, if they exist at all.

As far as the RTI is concerned, the Draft RTI Rules, 2017 propose that a query will simply stop if the applicant dies while the appeal is pending before the Central Information Commission. Activists have flagged this as a dangerous clause. Already, across the country, more than 65 RTI activists have been murdered and numerous others have been subjected to violence and intimidation.

Coupled with this is another aspect of the justice system in India—the lack of a witness protection programme. A number of reports of the Law Commission of India, the National Police Commission and the Justice Malimath Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System have recommended the setting up of such a programme. Witnesses turning hostile when the case comes up for hearing is a familiar phenomenon. This has happened in the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, the Best Bakery case in Gujarat, the Jessica Lal case in New Delhi, and recently in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter killing case being heard in Mumbai.

If the government is serious about rooting out corruption and protecting those who provide information about the corrupt, it must deal with all the three areas mentioned above—protecting whistle-blowers, witnesses in court cases, and RTI activists. Employees of private corporate entities, government servants, and persons prompted by their conscience or motivated by grievance are all well placed to act as watchdogs. A government that is sincere in its desire to fight corruption and injustice must protect these public heroes.

Updated On : 7th Mar, 2018


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