The mystery surrounding the death of DK Ravi, the Karnataka cadre IAS officer who was found hanging in his home on March 16, underlines the perils to life and reputation faced by those whom fight corruption while pursuing their duties with conscience and integrity.

Ravi, who was an additional commissioner of enforcement in the commercial taxes department, had taken on the sand mafia in the state's Kolar district. The police said they found him hanging from a ceiling fan and said they suspected it was suicide, but the Opposition in the Congress-ruled state wants the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the case.

Regardless of what police investigations finally establish, there is little doubt that this charismatic young officer, raised in a disadvantaged family, fought from the front with verve and courage against what he believed was wrong and unjust.

He made many powerful enemies along the way. These reportedly included real-estate builders who encroached on lake beds and forest lands with impunity to make runaway profits, sand and stone mafias, cinema owners who evaded more than Rs 100 crore in taxes, doctors who never attended public hospitals, revenue officials who would not amend land records without rent-seeking, and senior politicians and officials under whose protection these diverse criminal and corrupt constituents thrived.

Greater risk

Nothing in the system protects, supports or guides such conscientious officers. It never has, for a long time. It was very rare even in my years of service to hear of senior officers who encouraged and guided such officers or resisted political dictates to punish upright but inconvenient younger officers, and even less of superior officers who put their own careers in peril to uphold righteous, if foolhardy, actions of their honest subordinates.

What is new is the scale of the risks to life and reputation that such officers face, and how indifferent their superior officers are even to their safety, let alone to protecting their reputations. When we observe an incontrovertibly courageous and honest dead officer being maligned by systematic official rumours, sly insinuations and leaks, even as independent police investigations are resisted, this underlines how lonely and treacherous are the battles against the criminally corrupt even by those who the system officially depends on for controlling this malfeasance.

Fighting corruption has always been a high-risk enterprise in India. For ordinary people working outside the system to identify, prove, speak out against and fight corruption, has always required enormous courage, and attacks on their person and reputation were not uncommon. The fate of whistle-blowers within the system was also always fraught, and India has still not developed an adequate legal framework to protect informers who covertly fight corruption in the system from within.

But the situation was never as dangerous as it is today for people at the apex of the country’s administration, namely members of the higher administrative and police services, those whose job is to prevent, control, investigate and prosecute the corrupt. In nearly two decades of service in the Indian Administrative Service, I knew well the consequences of frontally battling official corruption. Your career was always on the line; you would be transferred within months, often to inconsequential postings, and seniors and some peers would describe you as inconvenient and impractical. But I don’t recall in those years that threats to one’s life were as grave as they are today.

Higher stakes

What indeed has changed in the official fight against corruption? The first is the astronomical rise in the rewards and stakes of corruption in the era of crony capitalism born of neo-liberal economic policies. It was earlier believed that rent-seeking would automatically decline when official regulations of the notorious licence-permit raj would be dismantled. But what happened instead was that public wealth such as coal, minerals, power, and infrastructure, along with new public wealth like the tele-spectrum, were all privatised and became available for official distribution, usually with enormous and opaque discretion, for massive private profit.

The Bofors’ kickback scam in the 1980s involved total bribes amounting to Rs 80 crore. Today estimates of scams sometimes run into dizzying trillions of rupees. The scale of illicit profits that can be made has risen many-fold, even as the Sensex and the country’s growth graphs peak.

What also changed was the idea of the good state. At the time I entered the civil services in the 1980s, the idea still survived that the primary duty of the good state was to defend the rights of the most oppressed and defenceless, and in Gandhi’s words, to wipe every tear from every eye. An officer who led an opulent lifestyle and kept company with wealthy businesspeople was still stigmatised as probably corrupt. The officer who defended the poor was already part of a rapidly shrinking minority by then, but was still respected as fighting the good fight, even if unwise from the perspective of a mainstream career.

All of this is history. Today, an officer who advocates for the poor is seen as not just an oddity and a crank, but also a deadweight on India’s great surge forward. The good state is no longer one that sides with the poor, but one which supports big private business. The officer who now befriends and benefits the rich and super-rich is no longer stigmatised as corrupt; he can claim to be ‘nation-building’, whereas it is his occasional colleague still battling for the poor who is holding India back from its shining future vested in unrestrained market-led growth. The latter battles alone, with a modest lifestyle, marginalised career and sometimes risk to reputation and life. The former enjoys all paid-for overseas vacations, "scholarships" for one’s children to study overseas, besides properties on many shores.

Precarious path

The wonder then is that there are still officers who choose the hard and precarious path. Unknown at most times to the rest of the country, uncelebrated in the national media, unsupported and often isolated in their own fraternities, they fight solitary and dangerous battles for what they understand to be truth and justice.

In Chhatisgarh, I meet district heads who side with displaced tribals against politically connected powerful coal and power czars. In Manipur and in the Maoist forest lands of central India I encounter officers who abandon security to ensure that poor people trapped between militant violence and the  state are able to access their basic development needs.

In Gujarat, I know police officers who stood tall against the communal carnage in 2002, offered crucial evidence against powerful political leaders who participated in the carnage and independently investigated the high-profile alleged police encounters of Sohrabuddin and Ishrat Jehan, exposing them to be extra-judicial killings. As a result, these officers face numerous charges and investigations, and their careers are in shreds.

These are India’s unknown heroes and heroines. In rare moments, like the massive emotional public demonstrations after Ravi’s death, we recognise briefly their contributions. But for the most part, we let them fight for truth and justice without any protection or support, from within the system or outside it, ever in real and present danger to their reputations and their lives. I wonder if India’s democracy deserves its unsung warriors.