Friday, August 06, 2010

Safeguard Whistle-blowers

Safeguard Whistle-blowers
Times of India

The recent spate of murders and physical assaults involving Right to Information activists in the country there have been eight murders and 20 serious attacks so far this year including the brazen murder of RTI activist Amit Jethwa highlights the need for a strong law to protect whistle-blowers and deal with complaints filed by them. In the US and other western countries there are specific laws to protect whistle-blowers. They are all the more necessary in India where corruption is endemic and whistleblowers have little protection.

It is imperative, therefore, that Parliament should immediately pass the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill, 2009, to protect whistle-blowers and activists.

Jethwa was murdered by gunmen outside the Ahmedabad high court a few days after he filed a PIL there naming an MP allegedly involved in illegal mining in the reserved Gir Forest area. Prior to Jethwa, National Highway Authority of India's Satyendra Dubey and Indian Oil Corporation's Manjunath Shanmugham were killed because they exposed corruption. These murders highlight the dangers to those who unearth the rot in the system. The RTI whose whole objective is to impart greater transparency to the system has little meaning if those who seek information under it cannot be protected. The same goes for whistle-blowers inside organisations where there is corruption. That's why legislation with some teeth is needed.

The proposed law appears to fit the bill, as it seeks to empower any person to file a complaint of corruption or disclosure against any central, state and public sector employee to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Further, as the nodal authority, the CVC would have powers of a civil court to summon, order police investigation and provide security to the whistle-blower. Also, under the law, if a whistle-blower's identity is compromised or if he is victimised, the individual's superiors will be held liable. Moreover, to handle frivolous complaints, there are provisions for penalties in the law.

While the law doesn't specifically mention RTI activists, it should nonetheless take care of their long-standing demand for such safeguards. In the law, the public interest disclosure has been defined as any information that indicates misuse of public money or authority and the persons providing such information are defined as whistle-blowers. However, more could be done in this regard such as incorporating similar provisions in the RTI Act. A multiple system of vigilance authority is also desirable. In addition to the CVC, the government should aggressively push for the appointment of lokayuktas with real powers to act as a check on state governments.

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