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Unafraid to spill the beans

india Updated: May 27, 2012 02:02 IST
Aloke Tikku
Aloke Tikku
Hindustan Times
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Found battered outside a Bengaluru hotel on 16 May, SP Mahantesh, 48, didn't survive to identify the goons who beat him unconscious. Or the law that wasn't there to protect whistleblowers. Or a system that didn't enforce existing ones.

The Whistleblowers Protection Bill passed by Lok Sabha in December was the outcome of a 9-year long campaign, after NHAI engineer Satyendra Dubey's killing. The bill came up the second time in Rajya Sabha in March - 46 days before the attack on Mahantesh - but opposition delayed it, wanting more time to study the bill.

Politics, and desire to deny the government credit for the law, might have played its part. The bill guarantees anonymity, promises to probe complaints if accompanied by evidence and insulates whistleblowers from harassment and coercive action by employers. But the Bill isn't perfect. Others who died for truth

Transparency and anti-graft campaigners insist the legislation has serious flaws. One relates to entrusting the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) with complaints from whistleblowers in the central government. There are 50 lakh government and public sector employees. In contrast, the CVC - the watchdog for senior officers - has less than 200 officers and clerks. CVC officials concede it was for lack of manpower that the commission, tasked to receive whistleblowers' complaints under a 2004 resolution, never advertised this mandate. "We wouldn't have had the resources to process them," says a retired CVC official.

In 2010, it received 439 complaints and sent 155 to the CBI for inquiries. There is one thing the CVC's annual report doesn't say - many officials were penalised due to whistleblowers.

But the proposed law only defines a person as a whistleblower if the complaint discloses a corrupt practice, a loss to the government or a criminal offence by a public servant. Academic Shekhar Singh wonders why a person who complains against discharge of mercury into a river should not be covered. But this is something the CVC cannot deal with. The US, has sectoral whistleblower protection laws including one for the armed forces.

India's problems run deeper. "We need strong monitoring mechanisms... that impartially probe complaints," says Jayaprakash Narayan, a former IAS officer who set up the Hyderabad-based Lok Satta Party. It was due to absence of this confidence that Dubey blew the whistle to anyone who cared to listen, from the PM to his superiors at NHAI. Only the mafia heard him.

"There is no guarantee that if a private company complains about corrupt officials, they will not have to suffer," says Narayan. "Blowing the whistle is a heroic task. Understandably, not many are willing to be heroes."

Mahantesh disagreed. And died.