Sucheta Dalal :Whistleblowers And Troublemakers
Sucheta Dalal

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Whistleblowers And Troublemakers  

May 10, 2004

 “Dubey’s act of courage has made the country safer for the whistleblowers of the future”, said The Indian Express last week. Satyendra Dubey, an honest IIT engineer paid with his life and exposed the callousness of the PMO before the rules were changed. He had blown the whistle on rampant corruption in handing out contracts for the prestigious Golden Quadrilateral highway project


Following public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has been empowered to protect whistleblowers. Although the new rules are still to be tested, they seem to offer far greater protection to persons trying to expose corruption.


 The CVC can now receive anonymous complaints, and a clear mechanism has been ev-olved to protect the whistleblower while investigating the charges. If confirmed, the CVC can even launch criminal proceedings against offenders. On the other hand, it can act against fake whistleblowers if the complaint is false, motivated and vexatious.


 Every Satyendra Dubey is indeed an inspiration to society. There are also others like Atul Tirodkar of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) or M K Tyagi of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), who have suffered enormous personal damage and humiliation for having blown the whistle against corruption or misconduct. They too may face less harassment in the future.


 Tirodkar has fought his way back to the BSE after a single judge inquiry and the Joint Parliamentary Committee ex-onerated him of wrongdoing in exposing a powerful broker-president’s attempt to access highly sensitive trading data.


  The CVC’s responsibility is to sift through troublemakers and spot the genuine whistleblowers. They could end up investigating false charges; but it’ll have to be done 


 M K Tyagi, an IIT engineer and former chief sales manager at IOC, Bangalore, was charge-sheeted for pointing out that certain decisions by his senior officials were causing grave losses to IOC. When I highlighted Tyagi’s case rece-ntly, IOC’s communications head, N Srikumar, wrote to me denying that the “Fortune 500” firm had even harassed Tyagi, and said that the “losses” to IOC had not been established. Several letters from the Oil Sector Officers Association (OSOA) in support of Tyagi contradict this ‘official’ claim.


 Tyagi had also filed a complaint with the CVC leading to an inquiry, which confirmed his charges and recommended “major penalties” against his seniors. Soon after, on April 5, IOC dropped its charges against Tyagi; however, it “cautioned” him to be careful in ex- posing corruption. The ‘seniors’ have not been punished at all. The OSOA, in another protest letter to the pet- roleum ministry, alleges that Tyagi was not even called as a witness during the ostensible inquiry into his complaint. Tyagi will probably continue to battle for justice, but the dropping of charges against him may be a reaction to the nation wide outrage against victimisation of whistleblowers. Having said that, there is the constant danger that a variety of charlatans may misuse Dubey’s posthumous effort claiming to be whistleblowers.


 Most hacks would confirm that the system is teeming with disgruntled elements and mischief makers, who use anonymous messages as a tool to discredit people and organi- sations. Government offices literally crawl with such fake ‘whistleblowers’; often, their complaints are “sponsored” by corporate houses wanting to harass honest officials by having vigilance inquiries laun-ched against them. There is a legitimate fear that such operators could hide under Satyendra Dubey’s large shadow and gain false legitimacy by masquerading as genuine whistleblowers.


 The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) dealt with exactly such a case last week. A deputy general manager, calling himself a whistleblower, recently wrote a letter to the SEBI chairman making serious allegations against a number of senior executives. This manager, G S Reddy, is part of the secondary market division and in charge of depository services; he has been leveling wild allegations against senior officials for over four years. In April 1994, he had been suspended and charge-sheeted for impropriety and dishonesty when he claimed official allowances after demanding hospitality from a company under investigation. He was reinstated six years later after an inquiry led to an official censure and lost promotion. The CVC had concurred with this penalty and directed that he should not be put in charge of sensitive departments.


 Ever since his reinstatement, Reddy has repeatedly made bizarre allegations against senior officials and hectored them to make up his lost promotion and wages. He had even filed litigation against a former SEBI chairman and the CVC, which he later withdrew. Moreover, he has often embarrassed the regulator by getting involved in drunken brawls at a five star hotels in Mumbai and during a training programme in New York.


 On the work front, Reddy was known for endless nitpicking, delaying sanctions and permissions, and frequently humiliating capital market int-ermediaries. Thanks to his pro-pensity to lobby the media and influence lawyers, politicians and civic activists, Reddy had let loose a reign of terror within the regulatory body. The regulated entities helplessly suffered his insults because the regulator seemed reluctant to deal with the volatile Reddy.


 Finally, an inquiry by the CBI revealed that one of the experience certificates submitted by him, at the time of his appointment was allegedly forged. He again tried to bluster his way out of punitive action by leveling charges against senior officials, which he described as an act of ‘whistleblowing’. The regulator finally decided it was time for stringent action and is understood to have suspended him last week.


 What worries many people in authority is that there are many more Reddys (often anonymous ones), than there are Dubeys, Tyagis and Tirodkars. The CVC has the enormous responsibility of sifting thro-ugh malicious troublemakers, and spot the genuine whistleblowers. Often, they could end up investigating false charges and irritating honest officials; but it will have to be done. If India hopes to tackle corruption in high places and protect honest citizens, then we will have to live with the fakes and expose them, in order to protect real whistleblowers.


-- Sucheta Dalal