Whistleblowers in the government suffer for doing their job with honesty and integrity. This the cold reality of India. For a country supposedly tired of corruption in government, we do very little to hold elected representatives with vested interests, accountable.
Instead, whistleblowers suffer constant harassment, loss of professional perks and even death on numerous occasions for speaking the truth.
This is true for the whistleblower from Haryana who has received death threats for exposing illegal sand mining along the banks of Yamuna and Anand Rai, the government doctor who exposed the massive Vyapam scam in 2013, but is now enduring what is commonly known in bureaucratic circles as ‘punishment postings’ and receiving the usual litany of death threats.
Despite the existence of this dynamic in our country ever since Independence, many conscientious government servants and citizens have bravely come out to present the truth.
One such man was Satyendra Dubey, an Indian Engineering Service officer working with the National Highways Authority of India, who was murdered for seemingly exposing serious corruption in the Centre’s Golden Quadrilateral Highway construction project.
Despite understanding the fate of whistleblowers in India, Dubey fearlessly took his exposition of the truth to the highest office of the land. Sadly, he was seemingly murdered for trying to expose the truth. He had faith in the system, but it failed him.
This is his story.
Born into a family of small farmers (his mother also held a clerical job at a sugar mill) in the Sahpur village of the Siwan district, Bihar, Dubey was a high-performing student in school, topping the state in both Class X and Class XII board exams. Soon, he would clear the famous JEE examination and obtain admission into IIT-Kanpur in the civil engineering department.
After his bachelors, he would go onto earn a MTech in civil engineering from the then Institute of Technology, Benares Hindu University (IIT-BHU) in 1996. Following a master’s degree, Dubey joined the Indian Engineering Service and was deputed to the NHAI in July 2002.
He was appointed as a Project Director in the Koderma city in Jharkhand, where he was to oversee work on the 60 km-long Aurangabad-Barachatti segment of National Highway-2 (Grand Trunk Road). This segment, and the larger highway, were part of the Central government’s Golden Quadrilateral Corridor Project, which sought to link India’s major cities with four and six-lane express highways, and was constructed at an approximate cost of Rs 600 billion. Launched in 2001, this project was reportedly completed in 2012.
Discovering serious financial and procedural irregularities in the construction of this section of the Golden Quadrilateral, Dubey initially ordered the contractor on this project to suspend three of his engineers. He even directed the contractor to rebuild six kilometres of poor-quality road—a slap across the face for the road contract mafia characterised by a nexus of corrupt politicians, government officials, business enterprises and criminal elements.
Despite referring the matter to his superiors in the NHAI, he was soon shunted out of Koderma and transferred to Gaya in Bihar. Dubey opposed this decision, feeling that he was more useful in Koderma than Gaya. However, his crusade against corruption didn’t stop there.
Even in Gaya, he exposed serious financial irregularities in the process of sub-contracting and the construction of poor-quality roads. Troubled by what he saw, Dubey wrote a long letter to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee exposing systematic corruption in the NHAI.
“A dream project of unparalleled importance to the nation, but in reality, a great loot of public money because of very poor implementation at every state,” wrote Dubey.
Through his letter, Dubey sought to expose a conspiracy between the contractors building the roads and the officials appointed to oversee them. He ended his letter by saying, “I have written all these in my individual capacity. However, I will keep on addressing these issues in my official capacity in the limited domain within the powers delegated to me.”
Besides detailing the misdeeds of contractors, NHAI officials and even global infrastructure companies, he made a point of requesting the PMO to keep his name secret and sent the letter unsigned, although he attached his bio-data.
Instead of abiding by his wishes, the PMO forwarded the letter along with his bio-data to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, where it sat on file for months.
“Dubey’s letter is riddled with signatures and scribbles of officials indicating it was a classic case of a file going into babudom’s endless orbit,” says this Indian Express report. His name was leaked everywhere and by some accounts the road contract mafia got their hand on a copy of the letter.
Dubey even sent a copy of this letter to the then NHAI chairman. He received a response reprimanding him of disrespecting the chain of command by directly writing to the Prime Minister.
On November 27, 2003, Dubey was murdered while returning home from a wedding in Varanasi. While the Central Bureau of Investigation concluded their investigation into his murder as a case of robbery, the death and disappearance of several key witnesses and stunning escape of the prime accused from police custody, raised serious suspicion of bigger and more sinister forces at play.
In 2010, a fast track court in Patna convicted three petty thieves of murder, a decision contested by Dubey’s brother Dhananjay, who believed the three were “innocent.”
“The real culprits are still on the loose. It’s simply a cover-up by the CBI. Its statement is totally false,” said Dhananjay to the Times of India.
Despite the eternal tragedy of Dubey’s passing, what it did was really trigger protests in India with the media going to town against the government for failing to protect him and properly investigate his allegations. Besides inspiring others to show the same degree of courage, it even strengthened the call for greater probity in public life with the enactment of the Right to Information Act in 2005, and Whistleblowers Protection Act in May 2014.
Nonetheless, the road to greater probity in public life is constant struggle. Despite the enactment of such laws, what the government has done is introduce amendments that will further discourage whistleblowers from coming forward. In 2015, the Centre introduced an amendment to the bill, which among other things got rid of certain safeguards like protecting whistleblowers from prosecution under the draconian Official Secrets Act.
Besides the obvious persecution they endure, whistleblowers are now susceptible to prosecution as well. “Moreover, the amendment forbids disclosure of many categories of information in a whistle-blower complaint, such as information related to the integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state or information that relates to commercial confidence — unless that information has been obtained under the RTI,” reports Business Standard.
Citizens must remain vigilant, and the sacrifice of people like Satyendra Dubey must not go in vain.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)