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ACT OF COURAGE

Wind behind their back

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Films like 'Erin Brockovich' went a long way in changing perceptions about informers.

Dinesh Thakur and many others like him took advantage of the US culture and laws that honour and reward whistleblowers.

Dinesh Thakur is yet to enter the National Whistleblowers Center Hall of Fame - or any other scroll of honour for that matter. His exploit, or expose, is too new and too fresh. Wikipedia records only one Dinesh Thakur, the Hindi film and theater artist who passed away last year. Facebook has a bunch of Dinesh Thakurs, but none from Belle Mead, New Jersey, where this one lives. He has just begun a Twitter feed with three tweets and 29 followers (as of Thursday night), one of which refers to his spare, new website and a statement he issued after he made a splash in the world media last week. He's kept a low, low profile. For this column, through his associates, he declined to be interviewed directly, while pointing to sources of authentic information amid a thicket of speculation and hearsay. In fact, it's a surprise he's even around digitally - most US whistleblowers disappear into a witness protection programme, wearing wig and dark glasses.

So who is Dinesh Thakur, why is he important to us, and why should he be in any hall of fame - or shame, as some might suggest? A former Bristol-Myers-Squibb executive, Thakur, a US-educated Indian-American who is now 44, blew the whistle on India's much-vaunted pharma major Ranbaxy, where he was director and global head, research information and portfolio management. Six years after Thakur turned in his complaints, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), concluded, partly on the basis of Thakur's insider information, that Ranbaxy was in shocking violation of rules. Simply put, many of the tests were fakes and the medicines were duds.

Facing serious charges, Ranbaxy ponied up $500 million in civil and criminal fines to Uncle Sam. For his troubles - and his courage - Thakur received approximately $48. 6 million, a third of the federal government share of the fine (the rest goes to the state government and others who are part of the agreement) under US whistleblower provisions, sparking off a toxic round of backbiting envy from former colleagues and critics. "Why you kept quite (sic) when sardarji was your boss?" one person asked on Twitter, referring to Ranbaxy's Sikh founder-executives (who have since sold a majority stake in the company to a Japanese co). "Congrats! What you intent (sic) to do with all the money you got from Ranbaxy case? Suggest a Whistle Blower fund!" jibed another. To each message, Thakur had the same response: "I am so grateful for all the support I've received over the last few days - thank you. "

But for several years after Thakur left Ranbaxy following filing of a confidential whistleblower complaint in 2007, he really didn't have too much support. For some, what he did was tantamount to a betrayal - of the great Indian pharma story, which in the eyes of many is as great as the IT services saga. It eventually resulted in many of Ranbaxy's India-made drugs being banned from the US - a story that didn't get half the attention that Narendra Modi's US visa being revoked got - till US inspectors certified the company's processes and plants were safe.

India does not have a whistleblower culture. Even in the US, there was a time not too long ago when whistleblowers were seen to be tilting against windmills. They were derided as "informers, " and "snitches. " But over the years, a dozen or more movies glorified their exploits - from Serpico and Silkwood to the more recent Erin Brockovich and Michael Clayton - diluting the stigma. While whistleblowing rewards go as far back as the Civil War with the US False Claims Act, Watergate and All The President's Men made ratting on the establishment honourable and courageous acts.

Now whistleblowers have the wind behind their back. There are growing number of laws - albeit still inadequate - that encourage whistleblowers promising them reward money and protection to expose wrongdoing. In fact, in what is arguably the biggest whistleblower payout, US banker Brad Birkenfeld received $104 million in prize money last year from the IRS for revealing how wealthy Americans use Swiss banks to avoid taxes. Dinesh Thakur took advantage of the new American laws and culture, and much as one might envy him for the bonanza he reaped, the world, India and even Ranbaxy itself, should be thankful to him for exposing dubious practices and methods. For, such is the extent of fraud, fabrication, falsification recorded by FDA that were you to read some of the accounts, you would think twice before buying Ranbaxy's, or any other generic medication (Thakur's saga began when his own son did not respond to a generic Ranbaxy antibiotic but recovered quickly with a brand name equivalent). Of course, this is exactly what brand name Big Pharma wanted - to nail and crucify generics, whose drugs, of the same composition, sells at a fraction of the brand name price. To some, it may seem like Thakur eventually became a dupe for Big Pharma, if he was not a mole in the first place. But in a blog entry on Thursday, he said his work had just begun in evolving a policy on generics. "A lot has changed in the eight years since I became aware of this issue, " he explained. "FDA now has offices in China and India, the two countries that account for a majority of the manufacturing facilities that make generic drugs for the US market. There are inspectors stationed in the Mumbai (FDA) office who conduct inspections of the manufacturing facilities in India without planning for an international trip, applying for visas, and informing the manufacturer weeks in advance to expect them on a certain date. "

The last point is important because that was how Ranbaxy duped the FDA for many years. It's not as if American and other foreign drug companies, and the FDA itself for that matter, is above reproach.

According to the Washington-based National Whistleblower Center, there are cases where corrupt officials of FDA have also tried to undermine whistleblowers. The Thakur saga reminds us that we have to be constant gardeners.

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