In May 2014, civil society activists rejoiced when the Rajya Sabha finally passed the Whistleblowers Protection Bill (2011), two years after it was passed by the Lok Sabha. It couldn’t have come a minute too soon. According to National Campaign For People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), the group that’s been lobbying for this bill, over 40 whistleblowers have been murdered since 2008, and countless individuals have been threatened, beaten and victimised. “Whistleblowers are our real, unsung heroes,” says Nikhil Dey, co-convener of NCPRI. “Unlike soldiers who get paid for putting their lives on the line for their country, the ordinary man who files Right to Information applications and exposes corruption is paid nothing. Instead, he pays for his honesty with his life, while his family gets no justice, no compensation and little by way of recognition.”
The new legislation provides a framework for people to record complaints of corruption and wrongdoing in government works as well as a mechanism for protecting them and their identity. Most significantly, it recognises that people outside the bureaucracy can also be whistleblowers, that the aam aadmi too can uncover corruption. “Every citizen using the RTI Act is a potential whistleblower,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convener of NCPRI. And unlike those within the government, RTI activists are usually more vulnerable to being victimised for pursuing the honest path. Indeed, the majority of citizen ‘Deep Throats’ who were killed soon after they’d unearthed scams have been regular people, defenceless against the powerful and moneyed people they implicated. The following are cases in point.
In 2012, Sanjay Sahni, a Delhi-based electrician and his lawyer friend Ram Kumar Thakur chanced upon a scam relating to payments under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. “We found that the muster rolls were false – we recognised names of people on the muster rolls who’d never got a day’s work through MGNREG Schemes,” says Sahni. Using the RTI replies, the two activist friends conducted a social audit of the scheme in their village in 2012, where the mukhia and his men beat Thakur. “Thakur told the police that his life was in danger, yet they did nothing. Meanwhile, his RTI queries were also not getting replies,” says Sahni. Tensions escalated when Thakur filed a petition in the local vigilance court, seeking arrest of those involved in the scams he had unearthed. On March 23, 2013, Thakur and his nephew were cycling back from the court, when six men surrounded them and shot him dead.
Shehla Masood raised her voice against official connivance in tiger poaching in Madhya Pradesh. Using information she unearthed using the RTI Act, she questioned the motives of government officials and park and reserve staff about suspicious activities surrounding the deaths of several tigers under their protection. On August 16, 2011, she was shot dead with a country pistol outside her home.
In 2011, activist Niyamat Ansari exposed a Rs 2.5-lakh scam in the functioning of MNREGA in Latehar District in Jharkhand. After an inquiry by the district administration, an FIR was lodged against the former block development officer and a panchayat sewak, based on Ansari’s findings. Many threats had been made on Ansari’s life, and he had alerted the district and state administration to them. Yet, the day after the FIR was lodged, March 2, 2011 Ansari was beaten and left to die. By the time his handicapped brother, widowed sister and wife managed carry him 10 km to the district hospital, it was too late to save him.
“RTI activists are vulnerable because they often live in the same areas as the people they complain against,” says Bhardwaj. “As common people, they don’t know where to go for redressal when their complaints go unheard, or when the police doesn’t protect them even when they say they’re been threatened.” The most important aspect of the new legislation is its emphasis on legally protecting whistleblower identities. It states that if a complainant specifically asks for his/her identity to remain secret, the competent authority will be legally liable if it fails to protect it. The murder of Satyendra Dubey on November 27, 2003 in Gaya exemplifies the importance of this provision.
Dubey was an Indian Engineering Service officer who was posted as project director in the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) at Koderma, Jharkhand. Dubey exposed financial irregularities in the project and eventually wrote a letter about the systemic corruption in the National Highway Authority of India to the prime minister. “In his letter, Dubey specifically requested that his identity be kept secret as he feared for his life,” recalls Bhardwaj. Yet, the letter was circulated in the ministry, NHAI and eventually found its way to the contractors he had named. “Eventually, the inevitable happened. When hundreds of crores are involved, a human life in India becomes very cheap in comparison,” says Dhananjay Dubey, his younger brother.
Dubey’s murder raised some important issues which the Whistle Blowers Protection Act addresses. “The government needs to act promptly on whistleblowers’ complaints. My brother went unheard until he was murdered,” says Dubey junior. Dey points out that the new law states that the complaints can be filed by individuals as well as organisations. “This is a good idea as it takes the single individual out of the spotlight,” says he. NCPRI is also of the view that government projects and departments should make more suo moto disclosures (provide key information without being asked for it) – reducing the need for filing RTI applications in the first place.
On the other hand, the law already has visible loopholes. For instance, it states that the competent authorities for whistleblower complaints are the central and state vigilance commissions. “They won’t be able to handle the volume of work!” says Dey. “Instead, the government should make all bodies where people file complaints, such as the Central Information Commission and Human Rights Commission, competent authorities to deal with whistleblowers. This will allow complaints to be heard effectively.” More disturbingly, the new law does not offer redressal in the form of reopening cases or compensation for earlier victims. “My family wants no compensation for bhaiyya’s death,” says Dubey junior. “But it’s frustrating that the perpetrators of the scam unearthed and the people who had him killed have gone free.” Similarly, the chief accused in the Ram Kumar Thakur murder case is still the sarpanch of the village, but the police listed him as ‘absconding’ and hasn’t arrested him. “To make the whistleblowers law work, we need to somehow make the corrupt fear the law in the first place. It’s time to make examples of wrongdoers so they realise that corruption can have negative consequences,” says Dubey junior.
For the families of the martyred whistleblowers, the piece of legislation gives too little, too late. “When bhaiyya was murdered over 10 years ago, we only asked the government for three things – that his murderers be brought to justice; that his complaints be taken seriously and the culprits brought to book; and that no one else suffers the same fate as him,” says the younger Dubey.
With his murder being called a botched-up burglary by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the people Dubey accused are still at large; and the common man’s fight for transparency and honest governance tainted by the blood of many more martyrs since his own spilled on that fateful night in Gaya – the Whistle Blowers Protection Act offers little solace to his family. Yet, as Dubey junior says, “Maybe now fewer people will now meet the fate that my brother and us, his family, have met… and that’s something to be grateful for.”