Vigilance and Whistleblowing

Anil Kumar Tewari
We have observed Vigilance Awareness Week from 28th October to 2nd November this year. Every citizen and organisation was supposed to pledge for sincere vigilance and commitment to highest standards of honesty and integrity along with unstinting support to fight against corruption. The pledge provided by the Central Vigilance Commission on its webpage (https:/ / requires every citizen to follow probity and rule of law in all walks of life, neither take nor offer bribe, perform all tasks in an honest and transparent manner, be accountable for his/her actions, act in public interest, and lead by examples exhibiting integrity in personal behaviour. Similarly, every organisation is supposed to promote ethical business practices and foster a culture of honesty and integrity, refrain from offering or accepting bribes, commit to good corporate governance based on transparency, accountability and fairness, adhere to relevant laws, rules and compliance mechanism in conduct of business, adopt a code of ethics for all employees, sensitise their employees of laws, regulations etc. relevant to their work for honest discharge of their duties, provide grievance redressal and whistleblower mechanism for reporting grievances and fraudulent activities, and protect the rights and interests of stakeholders and the society at large.
Please mind the texts in italics in the above paragraph. If the remaining texts are followed in letter and spirit, the texts in italics become unnecessary. But, fortunately or unfortunately, the above pledges are necessary reminders. However,they are less than adequate measures to curb the malpractices at personal or organisational level. The texts in italics therefore need emphasis. We have the mechanism of grievance redressal in every system, because with the best of foreseeing ability, not everything can be foreseen or cogitated. Situation of life is complex and human behaviour is not hundred per cent predictable. Moreover, every child has to learn how to conduct in the society, and despite all care some fail to perform and conform. Thus, wrongdoings or corruptions have been indispensable evils in the society, and so have been the efforts to check them. Whistleblowing is one of such efforts. It is an action taken by an employee, a stakeholder or anyone interested in common cause to alert the authorities or general public to an actual or potential harm due to certain acts of any organisation.
Among other efforts against corruption, the role of a whistleblower is gaining sustained attention in India. Right to Information Act 2005 along with aphenomenal growth in the usages of social media has further strengthened the voice of whistleblowers. Whistleblower is a person who raises voice against a malpractice by any person or organisation and also reports any such incident to an appropriate authority/agency. A whistleblower is not necessarily an employee of the organisation against which alert is sounded. Any stakeholder or a person who is serious about common cause can also blow a whistle against corrupt practices. Moreover, to be a sincere whistleblower, one needs to satisfy certain conditions. The first and foremost requirement is that the intention behind the whistleblowing should be to improve the quality of the products or services to the society and not to satisfy personal grudge or defame the person or organisation.The alert call must be based on reliable information in that the whistleblower is in possession of convincing evidence and is ready to produceit on demand. Whistleblowing could be more justified if the local remedies are first sought but in vain.
The alert call of anemployee could result in either an internal reporting of a corrupt practice or its exposure to general public. The lethargic organisations (unfortunately they outnumber the sincere ones in India), in public or private sector, normally tend to take the internal reporting casually andthe exposure of their deeds to public quite stupidly. In the case of a public exposure, the whistleblower employee’s act is taken to be a serious dissent or indiscipline and the intensity of public attention/outragegenerally leads to victimisation of the whistleblower sooner or later. In the case of an internal reporting, the whistleblower is considered to be a dissenting voice and the authorities tend to sideline the person as if he/she has committed a crime. There is another psychological fact related to internal reporting. The person (s) against whom complaint is made often tend to sever the social relationship with the complainant. Such wrongdoers are confused about their social and professional roles. If there is any unpleasant exchange (not good, but sometimes it happens) related to a professional behaviour/role between two employees, there is nothing wrong in asking for a cup of tea or taking lunch together or just greeting when meet next. A clear distinction between professional and social role creates an environment of healthy work culture.
Whistleblowing is not a modern phenomenon; there have always been personswho would divulge inside information and wrongdoings to others. Kautilya (in his Arthashastra) talks about 42 examples of embezzlement including “what is realised earlier is entered later on; what is realised later is entered earlier; what ought to be realised is not realised; what is hard to realise is shown as realised…what is realised from one source is shown as realised from another…what has been taken into (the treasury) is removed while what has not been credited to it is shown as credited” etc. Then he goes on proposing that “any informant (suchaka) who supplies information about fraud just under perpetration shall, if he succeeds in proving it, should get as reward one-sixth of the amount in question; moreover, if he happens to be a Government servant (bhritaka), he shall get for the same act one-twelfth of the amount.” This provision concedes the presence of whistleblowers in ancient times in India.
Arecent example of whistleblowing is seen in the act of an anonymous group calling itself “ethical employees”from the Infosys. The group lodged acomplaint to the board of Infosys and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charging the company of engaging in ‘unethical’ activities of showing unrealised profits to boost short-term revenues. The group claims that it has emails and voice recordings to substantiate the allegations. The company is reported to have invoked its whistleblowers’ policy and placed the matter before the audit committee. The allegations led to the resignation of the company’s deputy Chief Finance Officerand interim CFO JayeshSanghrajka. The last time Infosys faced a whistleblower complaint was during the tenure of former CEO Vishal Sikka who was also compelled to leave in 2017. In many such cases, the whistleblowers are victimised. In the Kaloti-EY money laundering case, for instance, the whistleblowers are made to suffer disproportionately by the employer company and the matter is still sub judice. Despite complaint, many persons in managerial or supervisory role largely maintain status quo with a belief that ‘there are no holy cows.’ In a recent interaction, Narayana Murthy, an Indian IT industrialist and the co-founder of Infosys, remarked that it is pathetic that the corporate world in India does not condemn the wrongdoings ofa business house even after exposure. Unless it becomes a practice that any wrong by any corporate house is criticised by the fellow houses, it is difficult to improve the corporate governance in India.
The whistleblowers are generally victimised. In India, the issue of protecting whistleblowers caught the attention when Satyendra Dubey, who was an engineer with the National Highways Authority of India, got killed after he complained to the Prime Minister office about the corruption in the construction of highways. More than 60 RTI activists are murdered, hundreds assaulted and injured due to their alert call against corruption. To India it took 12 years after the murder of Satyendra Dubey to come up with a whistleblower protection law in 2014. Even today, how many of those thinking of whistleblowing feel safe? The studies since 1980s focused their attention on certain issues related to whistleblowing such as the psychological and social profile of the whistleblower, and identification of the organisational conditions which led to whistleblowing. The threat perception behind it is still unexplored. Should it have any effect if every organisation designs a whistleblowing policy? There are a few organisations which have such policy besides the usual grievance redressal mechanism. A common person in a society earnestly desires that every organisation should have an internal whistleblowing policy included in its functioning as part of best practices of corporate governance. It is however debatable whether and when it should be made only permissible or obligatory.
When it comes to the permissibility of whistleblowing, what is essential for the policy is to define the entitlement for it: who can be a whistleblower and under what condition one should raise an alarm? The instances of whistleblowing show that it is done by either some employees or other stakeholders or anyone who is serious about common cause. In any of these, it is rather easy for an employee to alert the people since the person is an insider and knows precisely how and where things may go wrong in the organisation. For others, it is not possible unless an insider divulges the information to them. Similarly, certain qualifications are also expected of a whistleblower such as one must have reliable information; one must be in a position to produce the evidence on demand; one must have a purpose of getting the quality of services or product improved; and there should not be a malicious intention of defaming the organisation or any person.
Given the above conditions of a sincere whistleblower, should one argue for permissible or obligatory kind of whistleblowing? If an organisation designs a policy and permits whistleblowing by the employees, the insiders would have less hesitation in raising their concern for any unethical or illegal practices in the organisation. However, if it is made mandatory, it is likely to create a tense environment at least in the beginning besides being inhibitory. For, the instances of whistleblowing show that the whistleblowers (as compared with inactive observers) tend ‘to have good job performance, to be more highly educated, to hold higher-level or supervisory positions, to score higher on tests of moral reasoning, and to value whistleblowing in the face of unethical behavior’. If it is made obligatory, their performance is likely to be affected since they may feel it as an additional responsibility to be carried out. And the inactive observers would anyway find a way to remain the same. Thus there are good reasons to make the whistleblowing permissible only.
Apart from encouraging the personal whistleblowers, strengthening the institutional whistleblowers is expected to produce positive results. The institution of Comptroller and Auditor General, a vigilant internal audit system, judiciary in certain cases, and some NGOs are some instances of institutional whistleblowers. These whistleblowers are less likely to be retaliated against and are more likely to be successful in stopping the transgression. A sincere practice of whistleblowing will certainly save from taking corruption as crime to culture. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is published by the Transparency International since 1995 giving each of 180 countries a score from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). In its 2018 list, India scored 78. There is a three point improvement in the figure since the last score. A mandatory whistleblowing policy for every institution would bring about more positive changes and thereby future hope to the society.
(The author is Head of the School of Philosophy & Culture at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Katra)