The road to perdition

Written by Kiran Yadav | Updated: Sep 12 2010, 07:41am hrs
Deep Throat, that's what William Mark Felt was known as for 30 long years. For reasons understandable, Felt chose to protect his identity as the whistleblower of the Watergate scandal that rocked the US in early 1970s and cost President Nixon his job as collateral damage. The US has come a long way since. In 1989, it passed the Whistleblowers Protection Act. And, just last month, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which rewards individuals for reporting fraud to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The UK, too, passed a Public Interest Disclosure Act in 1998. The Act shields a whistleblower against dismissal and victimisation, provided the information being disclosed is in public interest.

India seems to have woken up tooafter it lost Satyendra Dubey in 2003, Manjunath Shanmugam in 2005 and Kallol Sur, a BDO in West Bengal, in 2008. While a whistleblowers' resolution was passed in 2004, it was only last month that the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill 2010 was cleared by the Cabineta good six years later! How soon the Bill becomes an Act and how effective it will be, needs to be seen. The Bill is already drawing flak for leaving outside its purview the private sector. Interestingly, it was a whistleblower under the pseudonym of Jose Abraham, claiming to be a former senior executive in Satyam, who triggered the confession to the Rs 7,000-crore scam.

There is no denying the fact that corruption continues to be one of the biggest maladies in India, which ranks 85 on the Corruption Perception Index, says the Global Corruption Report 2009 by Transparency International. The report also regards 'employees as the single-most important group of actors capable of detecting corporate fraud'. An analysis of publicly reported cases of corporate fraud in large US companies between 1996 and 2004 reveals that employees exposed nearly a fifth of the casesmore than any other players, including regulators, auditors and the media.

Left to the wolves

"But whistleblowers in India are hardly offered any protection. They are left to fend for themselves," reasons KK Rai, senior counsel, who deals with service matters. He cites the case of AK Verma, who alleged how a contractor was being paid by the Nathpa Jhakri Power Corporation despite the fact that against contract-specified cement, the contractor was using fly ash. The revelation not only led to Verma's charge as director (civil) being withdrawn, but also to non-renewal of his tenure.

Rai is also handling the case of Indian Economic Service officer Manoranjan Kumar, who blew the whistle on an alleged 16,000-acre land scam at the Kandla Port Trust (KPT) while he was the deputy chairman and chief vigilance officer at KPT. Kumar, who reportedly faced multiple threats to his life, was transferred. The shipping ministry ordered a CBI inquiry, but Kumar, on his part, moved the CVC with his report and documents. In March last year, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) slammed the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) for bowing to the influence of the powers that be, and for failing to protect Kumar. A whistleblower without protection, where higher ups may be involved, may always be a victim himself, the CAT order said. The Delhi High Court, too, in October 2009 asked the Chief Vigilance Commission to answer why it had not acted on a report by Kumar. On September 7 this year, the court also sought affidavits from the shipping ministry and the KPT as to why 37 illegal leases were allegedly renewed despite a HC order to auction them post-valuation.

Last month, the Supreme Court admitted a petition filed by Azam Siddiqui, a divisional engineer of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, who was allegedly being victimised by the PSU for detecting an illegal call routing racket involving a powerful private cellular operator. The court also stayed the proceedings initiated against him by the PSU. In yet another case, the Supreme Court also issued notice to the shipping ministry, the Shipping Corporation of India and others on a petition filed by Lewis Shooting, alleging that he was being harassed for blowing the whistle to expose deliberate oil pollution caused in international waters by an SCI vessel. This, after the Bombay High Court had dismissed the whistleblower's plea after the DG and the SCI CMD had argued that the court had no jurisdiction to hear the the matter, as the incident did not occur within the coastal waters of India.

A lot at stake

"Exposing corruption in India means punishment and not reward," says a whistleblower on the condition of anonymity. There's not just a lot at stakeright from one's own career to the security of the familynailing the corrupt is no mean task.

Consider MN Vijayakumar, a 1981-batch IAS from the Karnataka cadre, who suffered dearly for bringing to light corruption in the bureaucracy. In 2006, he became the first IAS officer in the country to make his assets and liabilities public. He is probably also the only one to have lodged a complaint against the chief secretary with the Lokayuktaa possible explanation for seven transfer orders in less than ten months and also death threats that came his way. In fact, he has faced 50 incidences of direct harassment and threats since June 2006. The harassment came in multiple formshe was denied leave, his salary put on hold for months together, he wasn't invited for meetings, his appointments were declined.

His wife Jayashree started 'fightcorruption', a website to shield her husband from the multiple threats. Vijayakumar too, along with 15 IAS officers from across the country, has created a forum for whistleblowers in the government, called cleanias.wikidot.com. Their crusade continues. In 2008, Vijayakumar was a finalist to receive the Shanmugam Manjunath Trust Award for Integrity (constituted in the memory of murdered whistleblower Shanmugam Manjunath). "However, he was denied permission to attend the function, as the Trust was equated with anti-social and banned organisations. I personally feel the apathy of his seniors towards whistleblowing makes even the mafia look like saints," says Jayashree.

The plight of Lakhyajit Deka is no less. He was appointed accounts officer at the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship, Guwahati, in December 2007, but wasn't given any 'financial charge'. It was while tallying the balancesheet at the end of the fiscal year that he discovered that the entries of several vouchers were tampered with. "For instance, the account entry for a voucher of Rs 2,000 was Rs 12,000. I informed the institute director about the irregularities, says Deka. However, he found himself isolated in office and a couple of days later, was suspended. "The same day I came to know that I was going to become a father. Initially, I was scared, but my mother said this is the test of God and you have to pass...honesty needs courage. I decided to brush off the fear," recollects Deka. He approached the CBI and the Central Administrative Tribunal and also wrote to the micro, small and medium enterprises ministry, as well as the North East Council. The internal audit report, the CAG audit and a CBI raid confirmed the charges levied by Deka. In September 2008, he was reinstated on duty, only to be terminated again in December 2009 on grounds of a FIR filed by the director of the institute, alleging that Deka has terrorist connections. The CBI has sought prosecution of six people, including the director of the institute. The orders have been pending with the ministry for more than nine months. I am waiting for justice to prove that I was right," says Deka.

Deka's words echo in infinity, and raise uncomfortable questions. Like the one Abhijit Ghosh asks. Ghosh, who retired as GM from the Central Bank of India, wants to know, "Is fighting corruption in India a corrupt act in itself If not, then why are the ones I raised a voice against sitting comfortably and it's me who's running from pillar to post"

Ghosh in February 2008 lodged a complaint with the CVC against the then CMD of Central Bank of India, who, he alleged, was indulging in a number of financial irregularities. "Under the Whistleblowers' Resolution, my name should have been kept a secret, but the CVC sent my complaint letter to the one I had complained against. It was baffling," says Ghosh. In July 2008, the CVC closed the case and a month later, the first chargesheet was issued against Ghosh. Two other chargesheets followed and for 18 months, Ghosh was under suspension. "The reinvestigation conducted by the deputy GM of the bank found my complaints to be true. There are a lot of people who empathise with me, but empathy is not what I need. I need justice. Justice delayed in my opinion is not justice denied, but justice demolished, " his voice trails off, as he sorts the papers around him. "Ironically, the Central Bank of India has spent Rs 80 lakh of the public exchequer's money to fight the case against me! And now the new management is trying to approach me for a compromise," he adds.

"I have no regrets. I feel proud that I did what I had to do. But yes, I have been lucky, thanks to people who agreed to fight my case free and Shantanu Consul, secretary (personnel), who reinstated me in office just two days prior to my retirement. Otherwise I would have retired in disgrace," says Ghosh.

An endless wait

For Maj Gen VK Singh (retd), it all began when he was sent to RAW on deputation. "I was surprised by the procurement of a Motorola system by the SPG and purchase of the UHF/VHF antennae by RAW. The systems analysis group in DRDO must screen and grade the systems for crack resistivity. Despite the fact that Motorola refused to give the algorithms of their system, the contract was awarded to them. It was such a big compromise with the PM's security," says Singh. "In the latter case, the antennae were being procured at exorbitant rates100 times at the which it could have been procured," he adds. Singh reported the matter to his seniors. "When I observed that no action was being taken on my complaint, I wrote to the PMO directly. Both the orders were put on hold, only to be sanctioned at the original price after I left RAW."

It could have all ended there, had it not been for his conviction to fight corruption. All the travails became part of his book, India's External IntelligenceSecrets of the Research & Analysis Wing. Three months after the release of the book, the CBI raided Singh's house and impounded his computer, passport and other documents. Based on a complaint from RAW that he had revealed 'secrets' in the book that endanger the security and sovereignty of India, the CBI registered an FIR against him.

In November 2007, Singh made a formal complaint to the CVC about being harassed by the RAW for pointing out instances of corruption in the organisation. "My publisher too filed a complaint and even met the CVC. A delegation from the Whistleblowers' Forum also met the CVC, but nothing happened," he says. The CVC just transferred the complaint to the cabinet secretariat, but to no avail. Singh followed it up with a complaint to the CIC and has since been fighting for justice.

The journey has been arduous. A couple of months ago he found that his publisher's complaint to CVC was regarded 'distorted and mischievous'. The application was also considered 'pseudonymous'. "I don't understand how can that be. The publishers' name and contact details are given in the application. It also quotes specific instances of corruption with the names of the officers involved. Clearly, the CVC is reluctant to take action against RAW. I filed a complaint with the CBI as well to investigate the matter, but for the past two years they have only been examining it," adds Singh.

The wait seems integral to all whistleblower stories. Take the case of one of the founders and former technical head of National Technical Research Organisation, who has gathered evidence regarding rampant corruption in the organisation through over 150 RTI applications. Having gathered the evidence, he has so far shot off over 400 letters to the CVC, CAG, PMO, home affairs ministry, secretary (personnel) and secretary (finance). Allegedly, there's a Pandora's Box waiting to be openedcorruption in recruitment, scam in procurement and even misuse of official position. The CAG is investigating Rs 780 crore worth of acquisitions made by the agency, apart from 170 appointments.

Autonomous system

Clearly, apart from laws, India needs an autonomous system at the grassroots to fight corruption. A meeting held last month to delve upon the present state of anti-corruption systems in India strongly recommended that separate agencies should be set upLokayuktas at the state level and Lokpal at central levelwhich are completely independent of the executive whose corruption they are supposed to check. The meeting was attended among others by Justice Santosh Hegde (Karnataka Lokayukta) and former CEC JM Lyngdoh. "Lokayuktas do exist in some states, but they neither have powers nor resources. These agencies should be given complete powers and resources to accept complaints, investigate them and prosecute those found guilty. They should have powers over both politicians and bureaucrats," says Arvind Kejriwal, founder of Parivartan, a Delhi-based citizens movement.

DEATH IN THE LINE OF DUTY

Manjunath Shanmugam

A native of Karnataka and an IIM Lucknow alumnus, Shanmugam joined the Indian Oil Corp Ltd in July 2003 as a sales officer. He was in the midst of an expose on rampant adulteration of petrol in Uttar Pradesh when he was murdered on November 19, 2005, by a petrol pump owner and his accomplices. The trial that ensued was completed in a record nine months. All eight accused were found guilty. The main accused, the petrol pump owner, was given the death penalty. The others were awarded life imprisonment.

Satyendra Dubey

A Dy GM at the NHAI, Satyendra Dubey, an IIT Kanpur graduate, was supervising the Golden Quadrilateral project in Koderma, Jharkhand, when he got the contractor of the project to suspend three of his engineers after exposing their mishandling of funds. In 2002, he wrote directly to the then PM, AB Vajpayee, detailing the financial and contractual irregularities in the project. He had requested his name be kept a secret, but it was leaked on November 27, 2003, Dubey was shot dead in the early hours in front of Gaya Circuit House. Only in March this year, a special court in Patna pronounced three persons guilty for his murder.

Kallol Sur

In 2008, the mysterious suicide of Kallol Sur, a 30-year-old block development officer in West Bengal, made headlines. Sur spilled the beans on corruption by the CPM-led panchayat in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. A petition was filed by his father and the case is still pending with the Calcutta High Court.