The charges recently levelled against the Infosys management have put the focus on whistle-blowers and their role in exposing malpractices in companies. The charges related to financial malpractices and unacceptable accounting policies, and they have raised issues of corporate governance and transparency. While these issues will become clearer when the ongoing investigation concludes, what is already clear is the important role that whistle-blowers have in exposing wrong-doing and bad practices. The Infosys whistle-blowers did a good job, and the matters that they red-flagged may not have come into the public domain but for their initiative. But they also highlighted the problems faced by whistle-blowers even when there is a law which is supposed to protect them. The group sent the documents and the voice recording in support of their charges to authorities in the US, where Infosys ADRs are listed, and not to the company, saying they feared that their identity would be revealed if they sent them to the management.
If this is what whistle-blowers feel in a company which is well-known for its high governance and transparency standards and where there is a whistle-blower policy in place, the situation in other companies can well be imagined. Though some other companies also have whistle-blower policies, the processes and procedures differ. Most companies do not have a policy at all. The Whistle-blowers Protection Act does not offer adequate safeguards and protection to whistle-blowers. It has not yet been implemented in government undertakings and entities. It is felt that the law needs to be tightened if it is to be effective. But this is a difficult proposition when the authorities generally do not encourage openness and transparency and try to hide and suppress information. The tendency is to discourage whistle-blowers and to harass and victimise them. While the Act is yet to be operationalised, the government actually tried to dilute it through an amendment in 2015. At least 15 whistle-blowers have been killed in the country in the last three years.
There is a Supreme Court ruling that bars the disclosure of the identity of a whistle-blower during the trial process. This is perhaps the only real protection that is available to whistle-blowers but it is not known if every whistle-blower actually gets its benefit. Neither the law nor any proposed amendment gives protection to whistle-blowers from penalty for making disclosures to the media. Even in other democracies, whistle-blowers and the media are under pressure. Last week, newspapers in Australia protested with redacted front pages against raids on newspapers which had published reports based on leaks from whistle-blowers. The situation is much worse in India.