The murder of S.P. Mahantesh, who succumbed to injuries five days after he was brutally attacked, is a gloomy reminder of the risks of being upright in an environment that stinks of corruption. It also reinforces the need to push through with the long delayed legislation to protect whistleblowers, who often reveal information in the public interest at great personal risk. Mahantesh's death is especially poignant for The Hindu — less than a fortnight ago, the Karnataka Administrative Service officer had facilitated the release of an audit report of a cooperative society made up of employees of a public sector undertaking that is accused of making improper land allotments. While the unknown assailants must be found and brought to book, the least we owe him and other brave people who have striven to expose the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and private interests is a legal mechanism that protects whistleblowers from harassment, threats, violence and death. While The Whistleblowers' Protection Bill 2011 was passed by the Lok Sabha last December, it has been stuck in the Upper House, thanks to belated objections and anxieties, principally from a section of the Opposition, about the “leaks” it may encourage.
Any effective whistleblower legislation has two principal aims — to protect the identity of the whistleblower and to insure him or her against disciplinary action such as suspension or dismissal. Following the murder of Satyendra Dubey, the Bihar-based engineer who exposed irregularities in road contracts, the Supreme Court in 2004 had made a strong pitch for a legal mechanism to protect whistleblowers. It was thanks to this that the Centre even got moving on drafting a law; however a Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2006 was allowed to lapse. Ironically, the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha — and which faces obstruction in the Rajya Sabha — is weaker in one crucial respect. Unlike similar legislation in the United Kingdom and the United States, it limits those who may receive protection for blowing the whistle to government employees and those in societies or companies controlled by government. Given the number of RTI activists who have been murdered over the past couple of years, it is arguable that the country needs a wider and more comprehensive whistleblower protection mechanism that looks beyond government. The Bill is also vague about the manner in which the identity of whistleblowers will be protected. While it is important to recognise the limitations and the deficiencies in any legislation, it is obvious that those who risk their lives to uncover corruption would be better served by an imperfect law than no law at all.