The responsibility to protect
Nandi Singh, Ram Thakur and thousands like them across the country have been threatened, assaulted, even killed for raising their voices against corruption and wrongdoing. Following the passage of the RTI Act in 2005, it isn’t just officials within the system who have access to government information — ordinary citizens across the country are holding local officials to account in ways that were unfathomable even a decade ago. Unfortunately, for these whistleblowers who dared to show truth to power, there has been no justice. Neither have their attacks and murders been properly investigated, nor have the cases of corruption and wrongdoing they exposed been dealt with.
The well-known case of Satyendra Dubey, a graduate from IIT-Kanpur who was murdered in 2003, after he exposed financial and contractual irregularities in the Golden Quadrilateral Corridor Project of the National Highways Authority of India, had sparked the demand for an effective bill to protect whistleblowers. However, over nine years and innumerable attacks on whistleblowers later, the bill remains stuck in legislative morass.
The Whistleblowers Protection Bill, introduced in Parliament in August 2010, was passed by the Lok Sabha in December 2011 and has been awaiting discussion and passage in the Rajya Sabha. The bill provides for a mechanism to conceal the identity of a whistleblower, where (s)he feels that revelation of identity would lead to victimisation or harassment by vested interests. The bill makes it an offence to reveal the identity of the complainant and prescribes imprisonment and fine for anyone who reveals the identity. In addition, there are provisions to protect the whistleblower from victimisation resulting from the disclosures made.
There are, however, several lacunae in the bill that need to be discussed and addressed in Parliament. One of the most significant is the lack of a clear and adequately broad definition of what constitutes victimisation. It is critical to ensure that under the law, in case of a complaint of victimisation, the charge should stand established if the action or inaction that led to the complaint violates any law, rule, policy, order or is not in conformity with the general practice, procedures and norms in the matter, or is not based on sound reasons.
The bill is also silent on penalties and compensation vis-à-vis victimisation. If the legislation is expected to effectively deter victimisation, it must provide for strict punishment and penalties to be imposed on anyone who victimises whistleblowers. It must also ensure that wherever a whistleblower is killed or suffers grievous injury as a result of making a complaint, action is taken on a priority basis on the original complaint of corruption or criminal offence filed by the whistleblower. Cases of people like Nandi Singh, Ram Thakur and scores of whistleblowers who are poor and marginalised, bear testimony to the fact that whistleblowers and their families need to be compensated for any loss or other detriment suffered by them as a result of victimisation.
The law must cover complaints against the prime minister, chief ministers and all other public authorities, like the armed forces. Also, it is important that complainants against the private sector get protection under this act. It is widely recognised that corruption in private institutions has a significant impact on the public. Given the vast scale of the private sector in India and the corruption therein, it is important that this bill be extended to complaints about the private sector when they either abet corruption (under Section 12 of the Prevention of Corruption Act), or commit a criminal offence. This would also be in keeping with the stated position of the government, as indicated in the prime minister’s speech at a CBI conference in October 2011, to bring the private sector within the ambit of anti-corruption laws.
The law must take care to not empower anyone to dismiss or close a complaint on the grounds that it is “frivolous” or “vexatious”. These terms are impossible to define objectively and are likely to be misused. It may lead to a situation where most complaints would be routinely rejected as being frivolous or vexatious.
It is the moral obligation of the government to protect whistleblowers like Satyendra Dubey, Ram Thakur and Nandi Singh, who represent the conscience of the nation. A robust mechanism for the protection of whistleblowers in a time-bound manner is necessary to promote an environment to encourage people to blow the whistle about wrongdoings. A sound whistleblowers’ protection law might not be sufficient to protect whistleblowers, but is certainly a long-awaited and necessary first step. The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) has been demanding that the Whistleblowers Protection Bill be immediately discussed and passed by Parliament in the current session. This legislation is a key measure for fighting corruption, and in conjunction with other anti-corruption and grievance redress legislations like the Lokpal bill and the grievance redress bill, will ensure better governance.
The writers are members of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information
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