Maharashtra irrigation scam: Let’s salute the whistleblowers

Doff your hats to Vijay Pandhre and Anjali Damania. In case you don’t know already, the duo brought to light the multi-thousand crore irrigation scandal in Maharashtra. If their tireless effort to dig into the bottom of the scam goes to the logical conclusion, then some big heads might roll in the state. One of the heads could be that of Ajit Pawar, NCP strongman and nephew of party supremo Sharad Pawar.

Pandhre was chief engineer at the Maharashtra Engineering Research Institute in Nashik, when the scandal kept growing in active connivance of politicians and bureaucrats. In his official capacity he was privy to all the documents regarding irrigation projects. Last year, he blew the whistle on the scandal by writing to the Governor and the chief minister of Maharashtra. Damania pursued the case assiduously after losing her farmland to an irrigation project.

Obviously, Pandhre was not the only top official who had access to the sensitive documents regarding the dubious projects, neither was Damania the only person who lost her land. But these two decided to fight back while others decided to play safe by looking the other way while the state was being plundered. The enemy was powerful. Both suffered humiliation: Pandhre was dubbed insane and the latter was made to go through harassment of several kinds. But they kept fighting.

 Maharashtra irrigation scam: Let’s salute the whistleblowers

Ajit Pawar has been one of the casualties of the irrigation scam. PTI

These are the people who offer the country hope. It is rare to find people willing to take on the high and the mighty. Ajit Pawar is no small fry in Maharashtra. He is known for his strong-arm tactics and overwhelming influence over the administration. It takes real courage to take him and his ilk on. The country needs more such people in all spheres to tackle rampant corruption and break the well-entrenched unholy nexus between politicians, bureaucracy and businesses of several hues.

But acts of individual heroism cannot be a solution to the problem of deep-rooted corruption. Why can’t we have an institutional-legal mechanism to protect whistleblowers? Vigilance from inside will help clean up the system like no other external organisation can. It will instil fear in the corrupt and ensure adherence to rules which are routinely bent and subverted by the powerful. The combination of Right to Information and the whistleblower is a win-win one. It could be a definite game changer in governance.

Forget for the moment that it could be misused by blackmailers - RTI already has that problem, officials will be scared to exercise their intelligent judgement on complex issues for the fear of being caught on the wrong foot and official decision-making will get delayed. But if we are serious about stemming the all-pervading rot in the system, we need to risk encouraging whistleblowers and the RTI intrusion. Correctives can be put in place at a later period.

The government has a bill to protect the whistleblowers ready, but given the current political climate, the chances of it seeing the light of day are bleak. In that scenario what is the best option left? Given the reality that being whistleblower is a high-risk proposition and sometimes it needs the involvement of more than one person and several expertise sets to get to the bottom of a case, it is ideal that the person concerned gets strong organisational support. In the case of the irrigation scam, India Against Corruption (IAC) claims that it provided support to whistleblower Damania. If IAC takes up this responsibility in a routine manner, it would be an effective instrument in fighting corruption.

Elsewhere in the country, civil society groups have been helping disadvantaged people in a similar fashion. The government of the day should encourage the trend. It would help if these groups stayed off the policy turf and being confrontational, and instead concentrated on mitigating the problems of people through institutional remedies available to them. It would help strengthen people’s faith in institutions and by extension, in democracy itself.

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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2012 18:18:48 IST