‘A little sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ —Justice Louis Brandeis
Of the two things that I consider the greatest tools available to a citizen that can wipe out corruption and bring about a level playing field in a modern democracy, the Right to Information Act of 2005 assumes a place of pride. The other asset is the World Wide Web.
Here, let me propose a fresh approach to using the RTI Act which if adopted could revolutionise the way Government functions and instill the fear of God in the most hardened of corrupt officials. I intend to call this the Whistleblowing approach to RTI, and in these times such as we live in marked by total disillusionment, cynicism and blood and gore, I can’t think of no other way as effective to reform our sick system as RTI.
Before we discuss the concept of whistleblowing and how RTI can be co-opted in the mission of an undercover exposer, let us first look at the depressing socio-economic reality that has plumbed the lowest depths of immorality in Manipur today.
No one can save Manipur
Many writers exaggerate things to highlight a point, and sometimes I resort to such rhetorical tactic myself. Believe me, I am not exaggerating when I state that no one can save Manipur. The saviours are themselves drowned in the sea of hypocrisy driven by the cravings for quick power and riches, notwithstanding their professed commitment to commendable ideals.
To gain a perspective, let’s look at the motley of organisations that exist in Manipur and the objectives contained in their memorandum of association. Far from working assiduously to achieve their noble goals they seem to have deviated drastically from their original aims. This dissonance — of saying something and doing something else — has become a common feature of our organisations, especially the so-called students’ organisations, which neither work for students nor are controlled by students. Let’s admit it: in today’s Manipur, there is no genuine civil society movement worth the name that has the moral authority to claim that it truly represents the interests of the people, unshackled by considerations for narrow sectarian gains. Our civil society organisations do not have a goal; they only have a hidden agenda.
How about our political class? The less we say about it, the better. The electoral politics imposed in an otherwise semi-feudal society like ours has bred a kind of culture that rewards cronyism and manipulation instead of performance and loyalty to truth. The result is that even the few good men standing in politics have to bow to the rules of the game and abandon their principles. And the one unwritten rule is: grab as much filthy lucre as you can before the next elections. In the process, the public has become blighted potatoes that can be bought in kgs with money in the market called elections.
So are there any public-spirited people left? Maybe when I was a child, I could say there were patriots who could show us the path of truth and selfless service. That is a thing of the past, a figment in our memory lingering like a nostalgic dream which will soon evaporate into wishful thinking. I dread the organisations; I dread the politicians; I dread the movement because they remind me of one inescapable fact: we are sinking into a quicksand of helplessness and plain despair. We are witnessing the end of Hope. We are now afraid of dreaming because all our dreams have been hijacked by a monstrous threat of raw power and turned into worst nightmares.
That leaves the Government and its machinery which again inspires little confidence considering its level of insensitivity and apathy to the grievances of the people. The Government today in developing countries, and more specifically in India, is synonymous with corruption and incompetence. But only Manipur presents a peculiar situation where the civil society has failed in its duty, where the politicians openly talk about cuts and percentages and where the insurgency has wrecked normal course of life. And the result: we have a deadly cocktail of everything that is reprehensible as a society.
Here comes RTI
In this scenario, RTI can help contain the spread of corruption and scare the wits out of the Government officials indulging in malpractices. Only good governance can rescue Manipur and that has to come from the initiative of the Government itself — not as a result of the dictates of some discredited organisations that have lost the plots. Bureaucracy has the tendency to settle itself into some sort of comfort zone. If we have to reform this lethargic system, that complacency has to go and a new work culture has to be inculcated wherein transparency and accountably will be cardinal principles of Government functioning.
Also, we can’t at this moment expect the masses, who are mostly ill equipped, to file RTI applications because they may not have the inclination or energy to do so. Forget assertiveness, they may simply be ignorant of the existence of an Act called RTI which they can use as a stick to bring erring bureaucrats in line. The irony is that, as of now, the RTI is being used more by people who are already empowered than by those who need it the most — the undercut PDS beneficiaries, poor farmers in the rural hinterlands, the deprived backward groups, to name a few. And it will take years before the awareness of this Act percolates throughout the nook and corner of the State. There are also cases of RTI being abused to settle scores as part of bureaucratic rivalry, far removed from genuine public interest.
One fear is that the bureaucracy may perfect wily techniques to stonewall itself from the assault of the RTI in the years to come, thereby rendering the Act imbecile. That is why my belief is that the RTI movement has to come from within the system, not from outside the Government — a point which I want to emphasise in this article above all. This is an idea that is nearly identical to the concept of whistleblowing, a respected and widely recognised internal mechanism to prevent wrongdoing in organisations in mature democracies. In these countries, whistleblowing is socially accepted and there are laws in place to safeguard whistleblowers from likely reprisals (such as suspension, termination, demotion, discrimination, ostracisation etc.) from the powerful people caught in the exposed misconduct.
(For the uninitiated, a whistleblower, according to Wikipedia, is an employee, former employee, or member of an organisation, especially a business or Government agency, who reports misconduct to people or entities that have the power and presumed willingness to take corrective action. Generally the misconduct is a violation of law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption).
Unfortunately, the RTI Act of India doesn’t contain any clause that can protect an employee when she blows the lid on the scams brewing in her departments involving the upper echelons of the hierarchy. This is one loophole of the RTI Act that might be plugged by the Bangladeshi version of the RTI Act, which they will soon enact with extensive cut-and-paste job from the Indian model.
However, if there is a will, there is a way—and there, definitely, is a way to work around this weakness of the Indian RTI Act. The Government functionaries can act as defacto or undercover whistleblowers and pass on vital hints/insider information to outside individuals like a friend, a journalist, an RTI activist or an anti-corruption watchdog so that they can file ‘designer’ RTI applications to rip open the shady dealings of the concerned officials. The employee can even seek the incriminating files and documents using a pseudonym to bring them within the reach of public scrutiny.
In this way, one can avoid the undesirable consequences of blowing the whistle by transferring the responsibility to an outside collaborator while still being in the loop and more.
The best part is that all of this is legal, except that care should be taken to keep one’s identity and role away from the gossiping brigade of your department. But being a whistleblower is not that easy as it sounds. A whistleblower must have, besides RTI, another asset: a good conscience and integrity.
So what if you are a lowly official, RTI is the great leveler that gives you the power to teach your boss a lesson or two in transparency and accountability. From today, stick this slogan in the bumper of your car: “If you know it, blow it. Use RTI.”
I doubt anyone else can save Manipur. Not even the guerillas. And I say the next guerilla warfare will be fought not in the jungles but in the precincts of Government offices using RTI.
Against mismanagement. Against corruption !.
I say cheers to that, so shouldn’t you?
The Sangai Express