Switzerland is a country of enlightened values, a beacon of transparency and civil liberties. It is rare indeed for the Swiss authorities to go on a manhunt. But that is the case with Herve Falciani, a French and Italian citizen. So how did Falciani rub Swiss authorities the wrong way? The charge against him is serious — data theft, with the intent to cash in by selling the stolen data. In fact, Falciani has committed an unpardoble wrong in the eyes of Swiss authorities. He has blown the lid off the secretive world of Swiss banking. Thanks to him, the rest of the world has come to know how Swiss banks solicit wealthy clients in different countries, helping them avoid taxes at home by sending out their money secretly to Swiss accounts. Working as a systems specialist in HSBC’s Swiss branch, Falciani observed these shady practices first hand. After he fled to France and released 100 gigabytes of confidential banking data, wealthy people the world over are having sleepless nights. Of them, a list of 1,195 Indians has been published by a tiol daily, setting off a countrywide furore. While the Indian government has been markedly reticent, it has offered Falciani money for more information about Indian account holders. It remains to be seen how Falciani responds to this offer, as he is on the run from Swiss authorities. Fearing threat to his life, he reportedly moves around with bodyguards, sporting disguises and assuming false identities.
Like Falciani, two prominent whistleblowers who have become intertiol fugitives are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. It was Snowden who revealed the alarming reach of the US tiol Security Agency’s global surveillance programme running on huge supercomputers and servers. The CIA and later Dell system administrator while working with the NSA, was deeply disturbed by the agency’s spying on millions of American citizens over the Internet and phone networks. Resolving that he did not want to live in a world where ‘everything he does or says is recorded’, Snowden made damning disclosures to jourlists in Hong Kong before fleeing to Moscow for refuge. A furious US Administration has revoked his passport, charging him of spying and stealing government property, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. As for Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks chief editor and Australian jourlist remains holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London. The US is investigating him for publishing sensitive State information while Sweden is prosecuting him for alleged sexual offences. WikiLeaks has become a byword for whistle-blowing, which Assange justifies by saying that there are too many unjust acts in the world, and this state of affairs has to be reversed.
India too has its share of whistleblowers, intrepid individuals who have sacrificed jobs, family and social life for their principles. They take enormous risks to stand up for justice, for a free and open society. Some of them have paid with their lives. Satyendra Dubey for exposing the Golden Quadrilateral project scam, Lalit Mehta for uncovering corruption in NREGS and Shanmugam Manjuth for taking on the petrol adulteration mafia — all three were slain in cold blood. But there are heartening instances of whistleblowers filly maging to extract justice. Chief Engineer Vijay Pandhare blew the whistle on the Maharashtra irrigation scam of 2012, forcing Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar to resign. Pharmaceutical giant Ranbaxy had to cough up $ 500 million in fines in the US, after former employee Dinesh Thakur exposed its fraudulent practices in developing, manufacturing and testing drugs. An encouraging development has been the Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011, which got the President’s assent last year. This law seeks to encourage people to disclose information while protecting their identity, about corruption or willful misuse of power by public servants. But the Act has been criticised for not admitting anonymous complaints and insufficiently pelising officials who retaliate against whistleblowers. Such loopholes need to be rectified, which an alert and concerned citizenry must bring about through sustained public campaign.