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Using the Web to save a whistle-blower’s life

Using the Web to save a whistle-blower’s life
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First Published: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 40 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 40 AM IST
Mumbai: J. N. Jayashree did not want her husband to die the death of an Indian whistle-blower. Four years ago, India was rocked by the murder of Satyendra Dubey, a government engineer who exposed corruption in the national highway building programme.
Two years later, Shanmughan Manjunath, a manager at a state-owned oil company, laid bare a scheme to sell impure petrol. His body was found riddled with bullets in the back seat of his car.
To Jayashree, her husband, M.N. Vijayakumar, appeared to be trailing in their footsteps.
Vijayakumar, 51, is a bureaucrat in Karnataka, and he has a penchant for chastising colleagues who supplement their modest salaries with bribes, kickbacks and garden-variety pilferage. In recent months, his chastising ruffled feathers at high levels, and he began seeing the signs often directed at whistle-blowers in India: He was flicked around the civil service like a hockey puck, switching jobs seven times in the past nine months, most recently on 26 June.
As her husband made powerful enemies, Jayashree began to fear for his life. And so she devised an unusual ploy to protect him: She blogged.
In the YouTube era, she reasoned, it is harder to kill a man who has a bit of Internet renown. “We’re creating a fortress around him—a fortress of people,” Jayashree said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to inform the people that this is happening, that my husband is a whistle-blower, so that it becomes the responsibility of every citizen to protect him.”
The result is a small-scale test of whether India’s technology revolution, which is empowering tens of millions, can tamp the corruption that hinders the country’s superpower ambitions.
Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that monitors global corruption trends, ranks India below Colombia, Bulgaria and 67 other countries in its most recent index of corruption.
In a 2005 study, it concluded that Indians pay more than $5 billion (Rs22,000 crore then) a year in bribes.
Jayashree built her website, fightcorruption.wikidot.com, with the help from her son, a doctorate student in computer science at Delaware State University. On the website she chronicles her husband’s case and criticizes the government. An aficionado of India’s new right-to-information laws, she has acquired and uploaded reams of documents. She updates the website nearly every day and has received responses from around the world, including many from Indian immigrants who say they left the country because they found it too corrupt. Government officials in predicaments like her husband’s have sought advice.
Arun Duggal, a senior adviser to Transparency International, called the website “pathbreaking” for India. “For an individual to use the powerful media of the Internet to take a stand against corruption, to expose wrongdoing, to build a campaign and a following, I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it,” said Duggal, who is based in New Delhi.
Vijayakumar, in a telephone interview, said he had seen corruption since his first days on the job. He said he had threatened to resign five times and had filed about 25 formal complaints detailing specific instances of corruption to P.B. Mahishi, the highest ranking civil servant in Karnataka, which includes the technology hub of Bangalore. Vijayakumar said his complaints were rarely heeded.
The complaints have not been made public, but in the interview Vijayakumar offered an example of how he said officials operate with near impunity: In the government agency that oversees state-owned enterprises in Karnataka, he said it was routine for officials to invent imaginary losses, and to solicit—and pocket— extra budgetary allocations to recover those losses. “People at the top are involved, so they hope people will forget about it,” Vijayakumar said.
Mahishi, the civil service chief, conceded in a telephone interview that corruption was “everywhere”, in his own bureaucracy and in bureaucracies elsewhere. But he criticized Vijayakumar, calling him a lazy, ineffective worker who often skipped meetings and stayed silent about corruption for years before suddenly recoiling at it. “Why did it take him 26 years to become active on the cause of corruption?” Mahishi said.
Vijayakumar contended that he had always battled corruption, but from the inside. What changed more recently, he said, is that his pleas ceased to make a difference and that he began to sense his life was in danger.
For instance, Jayashree said, one night last year, their doorbell rang shortly before midnight. There were men at the door, and they told Vijayakumar that his younger son, a college student, had been in an accident. But the son was asleep in his bed at home, just steps from his father, and the family concluded that the men had crafted a ruse to draw Vijayakumar from the house.
After 13 years in that home, they moved to another neighbourhood.
Corruption is nothing new in India. International surveys have consistently described the country as a superpower of graft. But Jayashree sees the temptation to swindle growing in an era when bureaucratic salaries pale beside private-sector pay.
In the early years of the Indian republic, the civil service came with a chauffeured car, cooks and servants, perhaps a white bungalow in a posh neighbourhood. Private enterprise, strangled by socialist controls, often failed to match the perks and pay of public service.
But as India trades socialist dogmas for capitalist ones, the private sector is becoming king. A sexagenarian veteran of the civil service typically earns no more than $9,000 a year, excluding perks such as housing and a car. A 21-year-old engineer fresh out of college can garner about that much at a software firm such as Infosys, with annual raises of 15%.
As Jayashree tells it, many women who married civil servants began in recent years to see their friends’ private-sector husbands whiz into the financial stratosphere. And while there is ample evidence that men can be corrupted without outside persuasion, Jayashree regards envious wives as a spur to much of the sleaze she has seen.
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First Published: Wed, Jul 04 2007. 12 40 AM IST