Whistleblowing comes from a game referee blowing the whistle to call attention to a foul. In administration, it refers to an employee calling the attention of those outside to internal wrongdoings.
I am an electrical engineer. Our professional body, the IEEE, in its ethics guidelines advises us to whistle-blow but does not make it mandatory because those who do whistle-blow almost invariably suffer career setbacks including loss of job.
In Sri Lanka I pioneered a discussion on whistleblowing through a seminar at the SLAAS, where eminent jurists and administrators endorsed whistleblowing. In my ICES-published edited volume Enforcing Human Rights: Towards an Egalitarian Sri Lanka, the late Justice Mark Fernando, wrote a chapter “Is Whistle Blowing an Exercise of a Fundamental Right to Freedom from Corruption?” He answers this question in the affirmative in his summary:
It can therefore be argued that the Constitution recognises the fundamental right to freedom from corruption and malpractice, and the fundamental right and the fundamental duty to expose corruption and malpractice; that the Constitution also provides extensive mechanisms for the investigation of allegations of corruption and malpractice in further recognition of that right and that duty, consistent with an intention to encourage and protect those who invoke those remedies, and penalizing bona fide exposure of corruption or malpractice would be a denial of the protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12(1).
Justice Fernando urged professional bodies to include provisions for whistleblowing in their ethics codes but nothing has been done. I was charge-sheeted at Peradeniya for exposing corruption but was saved only when the Court of Appeal threw out the charges, ordered my promotion and confirmation, and fined the university Rs. 50,000 payable to me.
However, outdated provisions of the Establishments Code prohibiting writing of a Vice Chancellor’s corruption without first getting his permission, remain in force. The same VC for whose actions the university was fined, had Rs. 500,000 deducted from his provident fund based on the government Auditor General’s report. Strangely, he was never punished. It is a good deal. If you are caught stealing, put the money back. Otherwise, you get to keep it. The man was appointed under Good Governance as Chairman, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. This is the impunity enjoyed by corrupt administrators. Whistleblowers have their careers derailed and their actions really change little.
Jaffna’s New Problems
In the North, as we struggle to show that we can manage our own affairs, all indications are that Tamil administrations are not up to it. Jaffna University was morally bankrupt and the NPC too is sullied. Religious fanaticism is on the rise. Wells around the Chunnakam power station are contaminated with oil with NPC helping coverup. I saw the oil everywhere on the ground as a trainee at Chunnakam as long back as in 1973/74. During the war years, a private contractor Chunnakam Northern Power Plant (NPP) owned by Walkers took over. Now there is oil visible to the naked oil in the wells.
Credible accusations abound that NPP dumped oil into the ground water to save on the cost of responsible disposal. The accusation gets more credible when reports are issued claiming no contamination when the discoloration and smell are obvious to our senses. A former Assistant Government Analyst says there are simple tests to prove contamination, but these were not employed.
The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) discussed the matter early in 2014. There was general agreement, based on reports by the Water Supply and Drainage Board (the only agency to my knowledge with gazetted laboratory skills on the subject) that the well-water was polluted and no water within an 8 km radius of the Chunnakam Power Plant was fit for drinking. Then strangely, the NPC backtracked.
Suspicions of criminal responsibility were heightened when people with high qualifications but not in the relevant field were hired by the NPC to issue a report. Usually experts for this task on water quality would be expected to be analytical chemists, chemical engineers or water engineers. But as cited in a Hiru news report dated 22.03.2015, they were Dr. K. Valayuthamoorthy (an inorganic chemist from Jaffna), Dr. Nalina Gnanavelrajah (a Jaffna agriculture chemist specializing in land-use), Dr. A. Atputharajah (an electrical engineer) and Dr. T. Jeyasingam (a botanist from Eastern University and now its VC). Others say Dr CN Nachchinatkiniyan from Jaffna’s Community Medicine, Prof SA Nobert a geographer from Colombo, Prof SB Weerakoon a Peradeniya hydrologist, Prof RVK Piyadasa, Dr S Raveentran were also members but left out by Hiru. Only Wijekoon, if he was involved, comes closest to having the expertise. The actual report is being suppressed. Only a 4-page summary has been made available without names.
If the NPC was truly looking for answers why did they hire experts with irrelevant expertise? Worse, Dr. Atputharajah has been a CEB consultant which contracted the work to NPP. He not only lacked the required expertise but had a clear conflict of interest. Avoiding the simple tests available, expensive and sophisticated machines were acquired after long delays to issue a report in March 2015 that there are no “dangerous pollutants” when the real issue was oil. Were they bluffing for their pay-master?
However, civil society was engaged by then. First, a conference on “Oil Pollution of Ground Water in the Jaffna Region” was jointly held in Feb. 2015 by the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka and Jaffna Managers’ Forum. Then another by the Sri Lanka Medical Association with Jaffna Medical Association on 14.03.2015, in Jaffna. This was chaired by Prof. Jennifer Perera, the SLMA President, with Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan, President, JMA.
Given the pollution, borrowing from the minutes of the meeting, the people who were collecting water “from the plastic tanks expressed their concern on the quality of water provided by bowsers. They also stated that there was a large “Oil Pond” next to the power plant which disappeared about two years before that meeting as a sub-station was erected on the original oil pond. Google maps have shown the presence of the oil pond and are considered adequate evidence for its earlier presence. It was widely believed that some deep boring was done to remove the oil and this may have led to the contamination of deep waters in aquifers.”
The matter went to court and the Mallakam Courts ruled about a month back, based on a new report by the Water Supply and Drainage Board, that folk within 1.3 km of the power plant should not drink well water and must be provided with alternatives. The reduction in radius from 8 to 1.3 km is because of ground water flowing out to sea while replenished by fresh rains.
Dr. S. Sivakumar
Dr. S. Sivakumar is an expert on irrigation and the Head of Jaffna’s Civil Engineering. He has been pointedly drawing the attention of the world to our water problems. He has produced a YouTube video where he subtly raises the question whether the so-called experts lent their names in exchange of consultancy fees to clear a company of wrong-doing.
Unfortunately for him, his boss, the Dean of the Engineering Faculty, is Dr. A. Atputharajah who while being a CEB consultant took on a task as a neutral expert, when in fact his expertise has nothing to do with water contamination. Atputharajah, despite being a Senior Member of the IEEE which encourages whistleblowing, has threatened to remove Sivakumar from his headship and has filed a charge for going public with the university’s Deans’ Committee.
Jaffna’s VC Protected by Communalist UGC
Till 28.04.2017, Jaffna’s VC Vasanthi Arasaratnam hired anyone she liked, leaving out those she did not. Visiting Professors were appointed lying in Council papers they were retired full professors in America. University Services Appeals Board’s directives were ignored. The cowed down council fell silent when she screamed at them. Tamils, it seemed, could not do anything right.
The UGC under Prof. Mohan de Silva, took a communalist policy endorsing the VC’s view that Christians have no place in the university and denigrating the unions’ charges against the VC as a Christian conspiracy. When orders of the USAB were not obeyed, the UGC chairman took the indefensible position that he has no powers to do anything when autonomous universities violated the Universities Act. When queried by the president, his written response after a year was untruthful. The UGC had become good for nothing and its role in regulating university administrations is defunct.
Hope in Vigneswaran
The new VC, Prof. Ratnam Vigneswaran appointed 28.04.2017, is someone who is known for his probity. He knows that if whistleblowers are charged for violations of the Establishments Code, corruption can never be stamped out. With him at the helm, the do-nothing UGC is unnecessary to ensure the rule of law at Jaffna University. The timely change of regimes will save Dr. Sivakumar. Tamils now have a chance to show that we can run our institutions well, despite the NPC’s bungling and attempts at coverup, and UGC communalism.