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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 52, New Delhi, December 12, 2020

The fate of a whistle-blower in a Tata company| Upal Chakraborty

Friday 11 December 2020

by Upal Chakraborty *

The Whistle Blower Act was passed in the year 2011. Ostensibly intended to “provide a mechanism to investigate alleged corruption and misuse of power by public servants and also protect anyone who exposes alleged wrongdoing in government bodies, projects, and offices” – whether fraud, corruption, or mismanagement.

Unfortunately, there is no law in place for the private sector. Although most progressive companies have theoretically put in place policies for protection so that appropriate action can be initiated when instances of malfeasance are brought to light. It is difficult for the top management of a large corporation to be aware of what happens across the organization, however efficient the processes and audit functions of the organization may be.

An Act for the private sector is the need of the hour for the amazingly simple reason that stakeholders are numerous – shareholders, employees, vendors, distributors, and even customers. The financial health and reputation of the company have a direct impact on all the entities mentioned above.

The Tatas cannot be faulted on this score. They are rated among the topmost companies with modern policies, processes, technologies in place, boasting of top-notch professionals. Their Code of Conduct is explicit and unambiguous: “We do not tolerate any form of retaliation against anyone reporting legitimate concerns. Anyone involved in targeting such a person will be subject to disciplinary action. If you suspect that you or someone you know has been subjected to retaliation for raising a concern or for reporting a case, we encourage you to promptly contact your line manager (and if it does not yield results, report to the higher-level supervisor), the company’s Ethics Counsellor, the Human Resources department, the MD/CEO, or the office of the group’s Chief Ethics Officer.“

What is reality? We provide anecdotal evidence of the harassment meted out to a senior executive of one of the Tata Group companies, not just in the form of dismissal from service but incarceration based on a false FIR, albeit for a short period - currently out on bail. Living in Kolkata, he is under tremendous stress and financial hardship, the only reason being he attempted to uphold the integrity of the organization employed in. Fearful of reprisals in the form of physical assaults and murderous attempts from erstwhile executives of the organization, he was compelled to lodge an FIR at the Park Street Police Station.

The company in question, Tata Motors Insurance Broking & Advisory Services Ltd, a subsidiary of Tata Motors Limited, is into providing insurance services to individuals who have purchased or are in the process of purchasing motor cars and other general insurance products. An individual named Pijush Kanti Roy was employed in the capacity of Senior Manager in the company’s Kolkata office. He had joined the company on 13/10/2014.

The IRDA (Insurance Regulatory Development Authority) rules specifically state that the Principal Officer of the Company needs to possess a Graduate Degree as a minimum qualification. This is a statutory requirement. In due course of his employment, Roy had stumbled on an unsavoury aspect after receiving emails from anonymous identities claiming to be whistle-blowers who attached copies of the PO’s self-attested forged degree, and letters from an NGO by the name of Arise India Foundation, complaining to the Chairman of IRDA, the Vice-Chancellor of Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut, Cyrus Mistry, the then TATA Group Chairman and the Police Commissioner of Mumbai. They claimed that the PO of the company, Tarun Kumar Samant (or Sawant) was the holder of a fake degree from Meerut University (presently Chaudhuri Charan Singh University) and had provided different self-attested versions of his graduation certificate to two entities. One bore the name of Tarun Kumar Sawant, it mentioned subjects pursued as English, Economics and Political Science with General English in General Course, with the signature and official stamp of the Vice-Chancellor of the university only-and the second carried the name of Tarun Kumar Samant, subjects passed being Economics, Political Science and English Literature with General English in the General Course, and the signatures of both the Registrar and the Vice-Chancellor with an official stamp. A cursory look at the certificates would make it obvious even to a layman that the forgery was the job of an amateur roadside DTP unit. Apprehensive that in case the degree was forged, it violated statutory compliances of IRDA with the potential of causing embarrassment to both TMBIASL and the Tata Group, he decided to pursue the matter. He did it internally and took up the issue verbally with his seniors and subsequently through official channels to company authorities and the top brass of Tata Group including the then Chairman, Mr Cyrus Mistry.

The emails were sent on 07/04/2016 and to Cyrus Mistry on 19/04/2016.

Pijush Roy had also sent a mail to Ratan Tata, the interim Tata Chairman, providing details about the forgery and was assured of a fair inquiry by Mr Chinmaya Joshi from Mr Ratan Tata’s Office.

As a “reward” for his bold action, he was terminated from service on the 5th of August 2016 on grounds of insubordination.

His contention was later validated by the IRDA. On the 2nd of May 2017, the body issued a letter to the TMIBASL (reference IRDS/DB324/05/15) addressed to the Chairman, clearly stating that “the Certificate submitted by Tarun Kumar Samant to IRDAI, based on which approval of his appointment as Principal Officer of Tata Motors Insurance Brokers Advisory Services Limited was accorded on 07.04.2015, by the Authority, was surrendered by Sri. Samant to the University and stood invalidated by the University on 02.02.2016.” Hence, they were directed “to remove him as the PO of the broking company immediately.” The letter was signed by one Randip Singh Jagpal, Chief General Manager, IRDA.

The copy of the order was obtained by an appellate Vikas Narayan, who had to appeal to the Chief Information Commissioner, Bimal Julka, on 04.04.2019 and is currently in the possession of Pijush Roy. The CIC had mentioned: “......On being queried by the Commission regarding the nature of the complaint and the action taken thereon, the Respondent submitted that consequent to an inquiry conducted by the Public Authority, the said officer (Tarun Samant) was removed from the post of Pr. Officer of Tata Motors Insurance Brokerage and Advisory Services Ltd. since he did not fulfill the qualifications required for such positions....”

Further, the CIC opined that

".......The complaint made by the Appellant having been proved correct about wrong disclosure of the qualifications of the Pr. Officer of the said advisory services firm tantamounts to duping and cheating the gullible public and therefore strict penal action was warranted in such cases......"

Earlier, Tarun Samant (or Sawant) was summoned to the offices of the IRDA on the 20th of September 2016, where he defended himself on flimsy grounds. However, as per the officials of IRDA, the Deputy Registrar of Chaudhuri Charan Singh University (earlier Meerut University) maintained that the certificate was illegally obtained. The Minutes of Meeting was loaded on the website of IRDA on the 29th of April 2019.

There have been many such instances of fake certificates detected earlier in Meerut University, including the ill-famed case of six hundred doctors as reported by DNA on 21st March 2018 and the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team, reported by Deccan Chronicle on the 9th of July 2018.

The harassment of Pijush Roy did not end after his unceremonious termination. Crooks and criminals have always pursued whistle-blowers, intending to burn them at the stakes, since their ego and selfish interests are bruised in the process of the exposures.

One Bhanubhai Sharma, CFO of the organization, lodged an FIR dated 14/4/2018, (general diary reference 10/18) addressed to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Cyber Crimes Investigation Cell, Bandra-Kurla Complex under section 66© and Section 66 (D) of IT Act,2000 as well as Sections 419,500,501, and 504.read with 34 and 120 b of the IPC, with the assistance of the advocate Subhash Surve. The FIR was against Arise India Foundation, NGO, Dr Kodur Venkatesh, Raghavendra Kowlagi, the Western India Head of Arise India Foundation, Vikas K. Narayan, an ex-employee of TMIBASL, and unknown persons. Pijush Roy’s name was not even mentioned in the FIR. The above individuals were accused of creating three fake E-mail IDs to post defamatory messages in the name of Tarun Sawant and alleging through mails addressed to various persons within and outside the organization that he forged his certificates. The height of farce is that the mail was signed by Mr Tarun Sawant himself.

In April 2018, Mumbai Police, through an email summoned Pijush Roy. The ostensible reason was to discuss the University Graduation Certificate of Tarun Samant. Owing to his distressed condition, he was unable to travel to Mumbai but through a return email with a copy to Kolkata Police, assured them of full cooperation as a law-abiding citizen. However, out of the blue, one evening, three officials of Mumbai Police landed at his residence accompanied by a few local police officials to place him under arrest, seize his passport, and move him to Mumbai on that same night. Pijush Roy’s name was also mentioned in the FIR, stating that he had sent a mail under his official ID internally as well as to several external bodies to malign Tarun Samant or Sawant and harm the business interests of the company – with the ulterior motive of aiding competition. It was alleged that he created these mail-IDs which were later recovered, along with the passwords. This was a blatant lie. Pijush Roy had done no such thing. They had, as a matter of fact, forensically investigated Google, Rediff, several internet service providers, his Internet account, mobile records, and several cyber cafes in Kolkata but were unable to obtain an iota of proof. A gutsy individual, Pijush Roy had mailed to his colleagues, top authorities of the Tata Group, and then Tata Chairman using his official ID and had no reason to resort to spoofing.

Subsequently, in police custody for ten days, he was severely roughed up before being transferred to the Taloja prison for 41 days and granted bail with stringent conditions. He was also indicted as a party to a defamation case for Rs. 100 crores in Mumbai High Court lodged jointly by Tarun Kumar Samant(or Sawant) and Tata Motors Insurance Broking & Advisory Services Limited.

Strangely, neither Tarun Kumar Samant nor the Tata Motors Insurance Broking & Advisory Services Limited nor the Tata Group ever challenged the decision by IRDA in any court of law. Only once did they approach Delhi High Court. On 7/12/2016, Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw instructed their counsel to get the genuineness of the university degree of Tarun Kumar Samant or Sawant verified from the insurance regulator IRDA. It is to be noted that the said order was dated 07/12/2016, although the University had already invalidated the degree through their later dated 02/02/2016 addressed to IRDA. The court was not informed of this.

As stated earlier, the top managers of the Tata Group may not be aware of happenings in every unit of the group. Cyrus Mistry was the Chairman at that time. The processes of whistleblowing are being questioned here – half-hearted, disorganized, lacking credibility.

It is necessary for the Government to step in with an Act, as they have done for sexual harassment.

The Media too should take up cudgels on behalf of all whistleblowers. Countless Pijush Roys are languishing in our country, passing through trauma and unable to arrange proper legal assistance, while individuals like Tarun Kumar Sawant or Samant roam around scot-free, hale and hearty. The least the Tata Group can do is to reinstate Pijush Roy or compensate him for the travails he had to pass through.

* (Author: Upal Chakraborty has spent around 35 years as a management executive in major corporate firms and currently a free-lancing business consultant)

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