With suspicious attacks on whistleblowers, the Vyapam scam has highlighted the vulnerability of those who show truth to power. The string of corruption scandals that have surfaced in the last three months have established what many believe — in a country the size and diversity of India, it is impossible for a centralised mechanism to control corruption to succeed. The “na khaunga na khane dunga” mantra based on a Big Brother approach, with some high offices keeping a watch on the activities of all others, cannot be relied upon to effectively contain the malaise of corruption. Unless proper institutions and systems are put in place to empower those who expose wro-ngdoing, by offering them protection and ensuring that their complaints are effecti-vely investigated and acted upon, a mere change of regime will not lead to abatement in corruption.
Though the monsoon session of Parliament was a washout due to political parties protesting corrupt leaders, there has unfortunately been little protest against the non-implementation and proposed dilution of critical anti-corruption laws passed more than a year ago — the Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) Act, 2011, and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013.
The WBP Act, which received the president’s assent in May 2014, aims to encourage whistleblowing by providing mechanisms to protect whistleblowers and safeguard them from victimisation. Under the law, if a whistleblower is victimised, she can file a complaint to the competent authority (CA), who has powers to take necessary action to prevent victimisation and issue binding orders. If the WBP law was operational, a whistleblower like Anand Rai in the Vyapam scam, who has been recently shunted to a tribal district by the Madhya Pradesh government following a complaint filed by him to the CBI and has allegedly been receiving threats to his life, could have sought redress and been afforded protection under the law. Similarly, the law could have provided protection to those rendering assistance in the investigation when they faced threats and attacks, like the two former deans of the medical college in Jabalpur who were found dead under suspicious circumstances. Under the law, the CA is empowered to issue directions to the concerned government authorities, including the police, to provide protection.
Instead of promulgating effective rules to operationalise the act, the government has moved an amendment in Parliament that seeks to remove the safeguards available to whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) if they make a disclosure under the WBP Act. The amendment also forbids disclosure of many categories of information in a whistleblower complaint, like information related to the integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state or information that relates to commercial confidence, unless information has been obtained under the RTI. If the CA receives a disclosure containing information on any of the subjects mentioned in the bill, then the disclosure will not be looked into and the person making such a disclosure will also not be protected under the act.
The threat of stringent penalties for the violation of the OSA would deter bonafide whistleblowers from coming forward. Further, these amendments completely ignore the predicament of government servants, who come across evidence of wrongdoing in the normal course of their work and have access to information without using the RTI. The amendments render the WBP Act useless for people like Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath, who blew the whistle on corruption they encountered during the course of their work. The amendment has been passed by the Lok Sabha and is currently pending in the Upper House.
The choice of the investigating agency responsible for looking into the Vyapam scam has also been a topic of raging controversy — the Madhya Pradesh chief minister faced tremendous flak for initially not allowing the case to be investigated by the CBI. It is a shame that this is happening in the backdrop of the non-implementation of the Lokpal law for over a year and a half — a law passed after a huge public outcry and which provides for independent and empowered Lokpal and Lokayuktas to investigate cases of corruption.
Ironically, the Narendra Modi government, which claims to be committed to fighting corruption, has introduced a 10-page amendment in Parliament that aims to dilute provisions of the Lokpal act. Currently, the law requires all public servants covered under the Lokpal to declare the assets of their spouse and dependent children, in addition to their own assets. The proposed amendments do away with a common standard of disclosure, exempting bureaucrats from disclosing assets of their spouse and children, if held independently. This is a blow to the anti-corruption law, as illegally amassed assets are often held in the name of family members.
The commitment of the government and various political parties to fight corruption will be judged not by loud rhetorical claims and counter-claims of corruption but by the stand they take on these two critical laws.
The writers are members of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.