Four years ago, India was rocked by the murder of Satyendra Dubey, a government engineer who exposed corruption in the national highway building program. Two years later, Shanmughan Manjunath, a manager at a state-owned oil company, laid bare a scheme to sell impure gasoline. His body was found riddled with bullets in the back seat of his car. Is this what honest person should get in India After all, Satyendra Dubey may not have died in vain. His death was neither the first, nor will be the last that vested interests will perpetrate, but Dubey’s death uniquely galvanised nation-wide protest. That he was an alumnus of IIT mattered. IIT-ians across the world demanded action. Now at last, India has taken the first tentative step towards a full-fledged law to protect whistleblowers.
There is no occasion to celebrate any political sagacity or remorse that might have caused this development. It did not. The government --one with those around the world-- had to be dragged every inch of the way by angry public opinion. The Supreme Court did considerable prodding. The Hon’ble Court was acting on two public interest litigations seeking a permanent mechanism to protect whistleblowers. Finally on April 21, the Ministry of Personnel issued a notification granting immunity to all employees of the government except those in armed and intelligence services. For the moment, the protector of whistleblowers will be the statutory office of the Central Vigilance Commissioner. He is vested with the responsibility of protecting the identity of informants, follow-up on information received, investigate if thought fit, and initiate criminal proceedings if required. Once the on-going general elections are over, the new government is expected to apply its mind in framing a bill to supercede the current notification. A robust law is however, some years away. India is about to join an elite club of just four democracies [USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand] which have whistleblower protection. These democracies have not had these laws in place for too long. The US had its law in place only in 1989 and the other countries have followed after that.
K Ashok Vardhan Shetty has written a fine review [in the Hindu] of the role whistleblowers have played in improving transparency in governments. He suggests that Daniel Ellsberg of the USA would easily be the patron saint of modern day whistleblowers. In 1971, Ellsberg released the so-called Pentagon Papers that blew the cover of successive US governments that went about creating the mess called the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was a war veteran and later as an analyst at Rand Corporation had access to sensitive, classified documents. Stung by his conscience Ellsberg leaked these to the public.