Comment

Don’t shoot the messenger

More than 15 whistle-blowers have been murdered in India in the past three years. Parliament may have passed the Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) Act in 2014, but this did not help save their lives as the government has doggedly refused to operationalise the law. The Act aims to protect people who bring to the notice of the authorities concerned allegations of corruption, wilful misuse of power or commission of a criminal offence against a public servant.

A wider definition

Significantly, in defining who a whistle-blower is, the law goes beyond government officials who expose corruption they come across in the course of their work. It includes any other person or non-governmental organisation. The importance of such progressive expansion is underlined by the fact that in the last few years, more than 65 people have been killed for exposing corruption in the government on the basis of information they obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The RTI law has empowered the common man to have access to information from public authorities — which only government officials were earlier privy to — making every citizen a potential whistle-blower.

The WBP law has provisions for concealing the identity of a whistle-blower, if so desired, following cases such as Satyendra K. Dubey’s, whose murder in 2003 led to demand for such legislation. In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Dubey, a manager in the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) posted at Gaya, had highlighted corrupt practices in the NHAI and specifically requested that his identity be kept secret. But the information was leaked, leading to his murder.

Most notably, the law affords protection against victimisation of the complainant or anyone who renders assistance in an inquiry. This is critical as whistle-blowers are routinely subjected to various forms of victimisation — suspensions, withholding of promotions, threats of violence and attacks. The law empowers the competent authorities to accord them protection, which includes police protection and penalising those who victimise them. Whistle-blowers Ram Thakur, Nandi Singh and Amit Jethwa were intimidated and sought police protection in vain, before they were murdered.

Instead of operationalising the WBP law, an amendment Bill, which fundamentally dilutes the law, was introduced in Parliament in 2015 by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government without public consultation.

Shooting the messenger

The amendment Bill seeks to remove immunity provided to whistle-blowers from prosecution under the draconian Official Secrets Act (OSA) for disclosures made under the WBP law. Offences under the OSA are punishable by imprisonment of up to 14 years. Threat of such stringent penalties would deter even genuine whistle-blowers. The basic purpose of the WBP Act is to encourage people to report wrongdoing. If whistle-blowers are prosecuted for disclosing information as part of their complaints and not granted immunity from the OSA, the very purpose of the law would be defeated.

Further, to ostensibly bring the WBP Act in line with the RTI Act, the amendment Bill says that complaints by whistle-blowers containing information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty, integrity, security or economic interests of the state shall not be inquired into. In addition, certain categories of information cannot form part of the disclosure made by a whistle-blower, unless the information has been obtained under the RTI Act. This includes what relates to commercial confidence, trade secrets which would harm the competitive position of a third party, and information held in a fiduciary capacity. These exemptions have been modelled on Section 8(1) of the RTI law which lists information which cannot be disclosed to citizens.

Two laws, different objectives

The amendments ignore the fact that the two laws have completely different objectives. The RTI Act seeks to provide information to people, while the WBP Act provides a mechanism for disclosures to be made to competent authorities within the government to enable inquiry into allegations of corruption and provide protection to whistle-blowers.

Conflating the two laws is inappropriate and would preclude genuine whistle-blowing in several scenarios. For instance, what about government officials who come across evidence of wrongdoing in the normal course of their work and do not need the RTI Act to access relevant information? Again, should complaints exposing corruption in nuclear facilities or sensitive army posts not be inquired into just because they contain information relating to national security? Surely the country would benefit if such wrongdoing is exposed so that appropriate action can be taken.

If the intention was to ensure that sensitive information pertaining to national security and integrity is not compromised, instead of carving out blanket exemptions the government could have proposed additional safeguards for such disclosures such as requiring complaints to be filed using sealed envelopes to the competent authorities.

Concerns about these regressive amendments were brushed aside and the Bill pushed through the Lok Sabha in haste. The amendment Bill is listed for discussion and passage in the Rajya Sabha in the current session. To reconsider amendments that would fundamentally dilute the law, and provide an opportunity for public consultation, it is imperative that the Bill be referred to a select committee of the Upper House.

There is no justification for not operationalising the WBP Act. It is the moral obligation of the government to immediately promulgate the rules and implement the law to offer protection to those who, at great peril, expose wrongdoing.

Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri are members of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI)

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 1:16:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/dont-shoot-the-messenger/article19397939.ece

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