Sucheta Dalal :Death of a Whistleblower (8 Dec 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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Death of a Whistleblower (8 Dec 2003)  



At midnight on Friday, there were 15,000 signatures to the petition-on-line demanding full inquiry and justice in the murder of IIT engineer Satyendra Dubey. By 11 am the next morning, another 1,100 people had added their names to the protest. The petition —http://www.petitiononline.com/mod—perl/signed.cgi/sdubey) has been posted on dozens of web sites and forwarded by scores of Yahoo groups and blogs and the number of signatories has been growing at an amazing pace. But the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which is guilty of leaking Dubey’s name — first exposed by The Sunday Express — to the very crooked contractors that he had complained against seems unaware about the groundswell of public anger.

The anger is not so much at the callousness of his office; many Indians take that for granted. It is more because the leader of the world’s largest democracy has not felt the need to even respond to the killing of an honest young IIT engineer trying to retain the integrity of his own dream project, the golden quadrilateral. What the PMO probably fails to realise, despite having an IIT engineer, as his officer on special duty (OSD) is that the Internet is slowly channelling that anger into a quiet movement to clean up the system. The seeds of such a Web-based movement were sown a couple of years ago. And in the last year they have blossomed into thousands of tiny groups that are determined to contribute their bit towards creating a civil society.

What makes these groups special is that they comprise secular, educated, apolitical, middle class individuals, with specific expertise and interests. What the Internet does is to permit them to link up with each other, network and form support groups in minutes when they are moved by a larger issue or cause. For instance, even the Delhi Metro Yahoo Group members, K-West ward (Mumbai) Yahoo group and the Anna Hazare movement have all forwarded the petition to group members and supporters. Did you know, for instance, that the person who drafted the petition-on-line in this case is Tokyo-based Sanjeev Sinha who works with a securities firm? It is things like these that make the Satyendra Dubey issue different.

The Prime Minister may have been advised to ignore the Dubey issue by traditional political advisors who are probably counting on middle class Indians forgetting the case as quickly as they signed the petition-on-line. But we have reason to hope that this time it is different. That is because the Internet links a wide variety of people into a formidable network. From Kewal Semlani, a consumer and civic activist who fought solitary battles, to Shailesh Gandhi who has run a decade long effort to combat communalism. From Col. Ramesh Wasudeo who is Anna Hazare’s Mumbai face to Dr R.K. Anand a noted pediatrician and activist. From Express Senior Editor Prakash Kardaley testing the Right to Information Act to US-based Ram Narayanan who is concerned about Indo-US ties. From Sudhir Badami who crusades against noise pollution and for effective public transport to young Kush Singh whose highly informative Yahoo group for the K-West ward, which is slowly acquiring a national character.

The Internet links them all. It allows public-spirited individuals to link up with like-minded people and participate in a variety of efforts towards establishing a civil society and promoting good governance. They can also join larger groups such as LokSatta (www.loksatta.org), Public Concern for Governance Trust (www.pcgt.org), AGNI etc, that are involved with a broader range of concerns. This is just a tiny listing of the groups active in Mumbai. There are probably hundreds of similar groups around the country.

Not all group members may have the courage of Satyendra Dubey and gamble their lives, but most NGO groups are campaigning for two main issues — effective use of the citizen’s Right To Information under the Act, mainly to fight corruption and the need to legislate Whistleblowers’ Protection. The Satyendra Dubey case covers both issues.

His letter to the PM details how the absence of proper systems and procedures and the lack of scrutiny have vitiated the process of awarding the contract to the best companies. That he paid with his life for bringing the corruption scandal to the PM’s attention only underlines the urgent need to protect Whistleblowers. And the fact that PM hasn’t even reacted to Dubey’s sacrifice tells us how tough the battle will be. Having said that, it must be clarified that mere legislation will not protect whistleblowers. Even after the Act is passed, an Atul Tirodkar may still be suspended and victimised for blowing the whistle on the Bombay Stock Exchange president; and a Satyendra Dubey may still forfeit his life. But the existence of legislation will cause at least some companies and institutions to pause and worry about the consequences.

It is a little like the regulation against insider trading. Until a few years ago, insider trading was not even illegal in India. And although it is notoriously difficult to prove, having legislation in place is the first deterrent step. It is the same with legislation to protect whistleblowers. At the very least, it provides basic protection such as a fair and independent hearing and prevents employers from sacking the whistleblowers under other regulations. It also creates the possibility of getting compensated for harassment after a trial. There can be more. The UK Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 for instance lists a wide range of ‘prescribed persons’ in relevant agencies who are held responsible for dealing with whistleblowers complaints. Had we an Act in place, Dubey’s letter to the PMO would not have been passed around so carelessly, nor could all those who initialled it, evaded the consequences of their callousness.

It is globally acknowledged that the existence of legislation does not make whistleblowers out of ordinary people. Most whistleblowers have one thing in common — a strong sense of right and wrong. And the go ahead and ‘blow the whistle’ even if they become ostracised from friends and co-workers or are fired. In fact, harassment and victimisation of whistleblowers is the norm inspite of legislation, or they are ignored. That is why America has NGOs such as the National Whistleblower Center (www.whistleblowers.org) to counsel people on the consequences of their action and to handhold them and provide them with legal assistance during their battle. India too needs such counselling as much or more than it needs a Whistleblower Act, only then can we prevent other Satyendra Dubey’s from paying with their life for exposing corruption.


-- Sucheta Dalal



 



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