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Whistling in the dark


He stood in the burning noon of the Delhi summer. Shoppers and lovers ambled along the corridors of Connaught Place, its long white columns providing the only shade. The neatly sorted paper file in his hand was in contrast to the dishevelled looks - uncombed hair, loose, long-sleeved shirt, trousers hugging the ground and an old pair of leather slippers. In the coffee shop he sat awkwardly, nibbling at a sandwich. The awkwardness disappears as soon he begins narrating the story of how mine owners, transporters and others involved in the iron ore sector have been swindling the nation using every brazenly criminal trick in the book. His sentences are interspersed with statistics, the figures are all specific and there are no guesstimates. Over the years, this man - alumnus of the world's finest educational institutions - has been a key source for several investigators probing India's iron ore industry. The story sums up all that is wrong with the country today - corrupt miners with political muscle power, transporters who lie to the railways about their exports, fudged figures, conniving officials and even weak judicial interventions. He is constantly aware of the threat to his life, and fears being tailed by unknown faces. He doesn't use a mobile phone regularly, prefers to call from different phones. Some time ago a senior official of his department, an officer of the secretary rank, managed to issue orders to transfer him out. But an honest superior stalled the move.

Despite his pioneering role in exposing one of India's biggest scandals and his work as a key officer in several investigations, this man has almost no institutional protection. He is carrying on because of an unflinching belief in the need for integrity in public life, and a strong desire to make India a better place. He could walk away any moment to the safety and comfort of an MNC job. But he will not.

He is an Indian whistleblower.

The story isn't very different for the many other crusaders in this country. They live in a nation which does not celebrate the whistleblower. In most cases they can't even come out in the open to claim their rightful position in the society as genuine heroes. Many of them are murdered and not even mourned. Many end up with ruined lives and careers.

In the digitised world, where information is far more concentrated and explosive, the role of whistleblowers is actually growing. That is evident from the recent stories of whistleblowers such as Bradley Edward Manning who leaked the US diplomatic cable to Wikileaks and the few banking executives who have blown the lid off secretive tax havens around the world with their CDs and other digital databases.


Mature democracies of the West have long ago acknowledged the importance of dissent and whistleblowing nurturing their polity. The US passed the first of its many protective laws for whistleblowers back in the civil war era. The story isn't very different in Western Europe. This culture of respecting and protecting the courage to expose the dark truth was the reason why some of the most sensational pieces of information, with the power to change history, emerged thanks to the fearlessness of whistleblower. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and several other scams surfaced because whistleblowers scooped critical information which would have otherwise suppressed by the powerful bureaucracy of the State. Democracy, in that sense, is a constant struggle between individuals and the State, between the free flow of information and the State's attempt to monopolise it. When the State itself becomes the enemy of democracy, it is the whistleblower who carries on with the lonely task of protecting it. This acknowledgement of the whistleblower, and the value of healthy dissent, is repeatedly reiterated in many landmark cases in the West. The latest is the case of Dinesh Thakur, who blew the lid off the goings-on at the US subsidiary of Ranbaxy. The company ended up paying $500 million after pleading guilty to the sale of adulterated drugs manufactured in India in 2005-06.

In the process, Thakur, a former Ranbaxy director and global head, research information and portfolio management, has ended up richer by $ 48. 6 million (around Rs 266 crore) as the whistleblower. Thakur worked for two years with the United States Food and Drug Administration, Department of Justice, United States Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland, USAID, and State Medicaid Fraud Control Units to unearth the fraud. At the end of his eight-year long fight, he emerged a hero and protector of public interest.


The Indian scenario is in complete contrast. The culture of institutional appreciation of whistleblowers that existed in the early years of free India is now being eroded. If the media didn't celebrate him he would, in all probability, have met a terrible end. Whether it was S Manjunath, who took on the oil adulteration racket in Lucknow, or Satyendra Dubey, who confronted corruption in the National Highways Authority of India in Bihar, the story of many whistleblowers have ended tragically. Powerful mafias have managed to triumph most times. Ironically, whistleblowers in India are only celebrated after they attain some kind of 'martyrdom'.

Across India there are innumerable stories of whisteblowers, RTI activists and other social enthusiasts being victimised by a corrupt state and its organs, or being hounded by business-political establishments. Activists have recorded over 100 instances of RTI activists being killed, assaulted or harassed since the path-breaking law, a key tool for whistleblowers in India, came into existence.

The Central Vigilance Commission has a policy for whistleblowers and entertains complaints from them. However, it doesn't seem to have generated enough momentum to nurture the culture as an integral part of Indian democracy.

A comprehensive legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010 is still pending. And many have pointed out serious lacunae with the proposed legislation, key being the fact that it keeps the private sector out of its ambit. In a country where robber barons are as much a threat to the democratic institutions as the corrupt politicians and officials, it is a surprising and demoralising move.

A law in itself is not enough. For a chaotic, complex democracy of India's size, it is time that institutional mechanisms emerged to celebrate whistleblowers, to protect them and to place their contributions in the right perspective. Until then, the dishevelled man will secretly keep looking, with suspicion and fear in his eyes, for someone he can trust, someone who can protect him. If the idea of India has to survive and flourish, it is critical that this whistleblower, and men and women like him, survive and speak up.

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