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Sending out wrong signals

Whistleblowers on corruption are paying with their lives. Pass a very strong law now.

india Updated: May 22, 2012 21:33 IST

The death of SP Mahantesh, a 48-year-old Karnataka administrative officer who exposed scams in cooperative societies in Bangalore, is not a one-off case; such cases are taking place with alarming regularity in India, a country that boasts of a Right to Information Act (RTI). A couple of months ago, a young IPS officer, NS Singh, was killed in Madhya Pradesh while trying to stop the illegal mining mafia. If government officers can be attacked and brutally killed in broad daylight in the line of duty, will ordinary citizens be able to speak out against corruption? After Mahantesh's death, Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy was spot on when he said that the government must protect honest officers. However, government officials are not the only ones to pay such a high price for doing what they are expected to do. In the last few years, there have been many cases of civil society members bearing the brunt for uncovering corruption. While high-profile cases see some police action and closure, many are never solved, emboldening the wrongdoers.

The first case that got people talking about the need for providing a safety cover for whistleblowers was the killing of National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) officer Satyendra Dubey, a civil engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, in 2003 in Gaya. Dubey was killed because he dared to expose corruption in the NHAI's showpiece, the Golden Quadrilateral project. After Dubey's murder, there was enormous public pressure for a legislation to protect whistleblowers and the government came up with the Whistleblowers' Protection Bill 2011. However, the first push for such a law had come as early as 2001 when the Law Commission of India recommended that in order to eliminate corruption, a law to protect whistleblowers was essential and also drafted a Bill in its report. But where do we stand nine years after Dubey's (and many more such) unnecessary death? The Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha in 2011 but the Opposition, protesting against the government's hurry to push it through, stalled it in the Rajya Sabha. The whistleblowers' protection legislation was seen to complement the Lokpal Bill, but now with the latter being pushed into cold storage, there seems to be little hope for the former Bill as well.

The explanation for stalling the Whistleblowers' Bill in the Rajya Sabha was that it was not perfect and could be misused by government officers. One of the MPs warned that officers could "leak a sensitive document and claim immunity as a whistleblower". But no Bill is perfect; politicians should realise that the Bill cannot be held hostage to party and federal politics. India is also a signatory, though it has not ratified, the United Nations Convention on Corruption since 2005, which enjoins states to facilitate reporting of corruption by public officials and provide against retaliation for witnesses. The same MP, who had reservations about the Bill, also felt that "there is no need to hurry" as far as its passage is concerned. We disagree with his - and the Opposition's - stand: there is a need to pass the Bill as soon as possible to show that we care about the bravehearts battling corruption.