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Violence against whistleblowers in India prompts calls for laws to protect them

By Rama Lakshmi
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 10:42 PM

IN NAYAKANPETTAI, INDIA When police found Vaidyalingam Balasubramanyam's body dumped beside a road in this southern Indian village recently, his family said that telling the truth had cost him his life. The hand-loom weaver turned whistleblower had been fighting corruption in the local weavers' cooperative for the past three years.

"We suspect some people kidnapped him, forced open his mouth to pour in poison or pesticide and threw him out of a moving vehicle," said his son Shanmugan Vel, 25 , as he sat on the floor next to his father's framed, garlanded photograph at his home in the sari-weaving district of Kancheepuram, in Tamil Nadu state. "My father spent all his time investigating the office files for corrupt practices. He sent dozens of complaints to the top officials and leaders."

His father had been warned of the risks he was running, Vel said, but had responded that the documents "contained the explosive truth that will clean up the system."

Eleven people have been killed or found dead in mysterious circumstances in India this year after exposing corruption in schools and public utilities, illegal mining and unauthorized water and electricity hookups, according to activist groups. Hundreds of others have been attacked, threatened or harassed for similar crusades. In July, about 500 whistleblowers marched in New Delhi to protest the deaths and demand effective anti-corruption and whistleblower-protection legislation in a country where graft is more the norm than the exception.

The demand for such a law began six years ago after a national outcry over the killing of a 30-year-old engineer who had exposed a corruption scandal in highway construction.

Last month, the Indian government finally introduced landmark draft legislation - titled the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosures Bill - that proposes a system for dealing with corruption allegations and a three-year jail term for officials who disclose whistleblowers' identities.

"It has been felt that the persons who report the corruption or willful misuse of power or willful misuse of discretion, which causes demonstrable loss to the government . . . need statutory protection," said Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions, while introducing the bill.

Despite recent rapid economic growth, the expansion of the middle class and the spread of education and mass media, India was ranked 84th out of 180 countries last year in the annual corruption perception survey conducted by the global watchdog Transparency International. Of the various Indian departments analyzed, the police force emerged as the biggest offenders.

Since 2005, anti-corruption crusaders have used a law mandating the right to information to access official files and expose malfeasance. Balasubramanyam had collected hundreds of official documents indicating that a single family held a monopoly over the cooperative management, according to Vel, who showed a reporter photocopies of the documents. The files also showed evidence of embezzlement.

"Due to heavy rainfall last year, the government sent compensation money to hand-loom weavers. But I did not get any of it, even though the records in the cooperative showed that all the weavers had been paid," said Sukha Lingam, 40, a weaver in Nayakanpettai. "The managers ate up all the money meant for the poor."

Balasubramanyan always carried with him a yellow cloth bag containing files he had accessed. The bag is now missing. The police registered a case of "suspicious death" after his killing and sent his body for examination.

Analysts say public intolerance of corruption has grown in recent years, spurring the push for stronger laws to combat it - but also inviting violent reprisals.

"For many decades, Indians kept saying, 'What can we do?' But now corruption has reached a level that it is difficult to look the other way," said Sumaira Abdulaali, a member of the Movement Against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists, an independent coalition. "When illegal activities take place on such a major scale, then we can be certain that the entire system of politicians, officials, police and criminals are mixed up in it."

Many activists say, however, that the new whistleblower bill is still inadequate. It covers only the government bureaucracy and not the military or the corporate sector. It is silent on those exposing corrupt politicians. The bill empowers a body called the Central Vigilance Commission to investigate cases, but the government is not bound to follow its recommendations. It also says anonymous complaints will not be accepted.

"It is just a showpiece legislation," said Arvind Kejriwal, head of Parivartan, a New Delhi-based group that campaigns for transparency. "The entire emphasis of the bill is in keeping the name of the whistleblower a secret. That is the last concern of the people who blow the whistle. What they want is swift, guaranteed investigation and action on their complaint so that they are not vulnerable to physical threats and professional harassment."

The ministry has invited activists to comment on the draft legislation by the end of September.

Last month, the Delhi High Court ordered the government to pay compensation to Mahendra Kumar Tyagi, 65, who was harassed at work for complaining against his bosses' corrupt activities in the state-owned oil company. For 10 years, Tyagi said, nobody spoke to him at the office and he received no promotion.

"I was made an outcast and a prisoner in my office cubicle. It was like slow poisoning," Tyagi recalled.

Last month's court order hailed him as "courageous."

"I have been vindicated," he said. "But at what cost? I ruined my life, my health and my peace of mind. Today I tell my son, 'Don't be honest. You will get nothing but trouble. In India, the honest are punished, the corrupt are rewarded.' "

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