Monday, January 30th, 2023 07:33:48

Albatross Around The Corporate Neck

Updated: March 24, 2015 10:20 am

The stamp of Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and the most decorated and the only IPS officer to be rewarded Kirti Chakra, is clearly visible on the major espionage exposure in which crucial classified documents were allegedly leaked. This leakgate is estimated to be Rs 10,000 crore scam.

The sins of the father visit the son. The simile is rather misplaced in political context. Yet it is true that the corporate espionage scandal is a legacy of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2. The figure of Rs 10,000 crore was confirmed by former journalist Santanu Saikia, who is among the arrested. “It’s a Rs 10,000 crore scam and it was a cover up,” Saikia told reporters, outside the crime branch office, while he was taken to the court. Not a very senior journalist, when working, reports say that at the time of being taken into custody, he had 80 staffers working for him. As details tumble out of how classified documents including an input for upcoming Finance Minister’s Budget speech were allegedly leaked, the whole operation is getting murkier and murkier. The devilry of those who mounted the operation and their meticulous planning can only be compared to the boldness and foresight in avoiding a complex network of security guards and CCTVs at Fort Knox.

The massive crackdown on corporate espionage in crucial ministries was the result of a four-month-long investigation conducted by the intelligence agencies at the behest of national security adviser Ajit Doval. Doval raised an alarm over the frequent reporting of classified matters in the media. He pointed out that most leaks came from government offices. It is for such perception that Doval is the most valued intelligence man.

Following directions from Doval, Delhi Police conducted raids and arrested two energy consultants. “We have arrested Prayas Jain and Shantanu Saikia in this connection. Both of them are energy consultants who received stolen documents,” said a senior police official. While Saikia is a former journalist who runs a web portal on petroleum issues and has his office in Defence Colony, Jain runs his consultancy firm in Patel Nagar.

More raids were conducted following up on the arrests, at several establishments including in Connaught Place. Disclosing details of the case, Delhi Police Commissioner B S Bassi told newsmen that action was taken on a tip-off that two persons along with their associates were involved in “procuring, obtaining and stealing the official documents by trespassing into the offices of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas at Shastri Bhawan”. They used to intrude in the night, he said. “A trap was laid and three persons came in an Indigo car near Shastri Bhawan. Two persons alighted and went inside while the third remained sitting in the car. After around two hours, when the two persons entered the car, all three persons were apprehended,” he said.

Among the arrested were two oil ministry officials, a Reliance Industries (RIL) staffer and two other middlemen for allegedly leaking classified government documents to energy companies for money. The crime branch sleuths arrested Asharam and Ishwar Singh, who were employed as multi-tasking staff in the ministry, along with three of their alleged accomplices. They were identified as Lalta Prasad, Rakesh Kumar and Raj Kumar Chaubey. The probe by security agencies had led to the Petroleum ministry where Asharam, who was the peon with access to Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s office. He turned out to be one of the key men in the racket. Ministries and other government departments were alerted and asked to beef up their security. Once the probe began, dozens of phones were officially intercepted, after clearance from the Home Ministry. The agencies handed over crucial evidence, including call detail analysis, photographs, phone numbers and addresses of the suspects to Delhi Police.

Cloak-And-Dagger Of Indian Corporates

It is being said that the crucial leak of the documents from the ministry contained many important papers which were to reach to the PMO and Parliament. According to a report, experts have so far studied these documents, which include CAG report on hydrocarbon production, notes on approvals by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), government decisions on several national and international projects, Cabinet note on open licensing policy for oil companies, file notings and documents related to coal block auctions, reports of Public Accounts Committee (PAC), correspondence between the minister and his officials, and even communiques of investigating agencies and autonomous bodies. Individual project documents recovered from the accused persons include a feasibility report of setting up an oil refinery near Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, a report on natural gas production, maps of an under-consideration gas pipeline project from Ahmedabad to Surat, and several others.

This is not the first such case of espionage in recent times. In 2010, IAS officer Ravinder Singh, then posted in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), was arrested for leaking sensitive documents related to the Blackberry dispute to private firms. In 2012, a retired wing commander was held by the CBI for leaking confidential documents to arms dealers. Similarly, in March 2013, MHA staffer Surendra was arrested by the Intelligence Bureau and Rajasthan Police for leaking classified information.

In the 1980’s, an espionage ring was busted in the highly secured Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. Twelve government officials, known to belong to the “Coomar Narain spy ring”, mostly from the President’s Secretariat and the PMO, were arrested for selling top-secret documents to France and another western country.

The problem of corporate espionage has become a growing trend in the country. According to a survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India in 2012, more than 35 per cent of companies across sectors are involved in some form of espionage to gain an advantage over their competitors. Another report of Pricewater house Cooper in 2013 said that almost 80 per cent of Chief Executive Officers use detectives and surveillance agencies to spy on ex and current employees in addition to attempting to get competitive advantages. The report has called industrial espionage “India’s new booming sector”.

Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry has also called business espionage the 9th biggest threat to Indian companies in its annual India Risk Survey in 2014. Worryingly, the report also said that, despite the spread of Closed Circuit TV cameras and tracking software, only 15-20 per cent of corporate espionage cases actually end up being detected.

By Rohan Pal

This latest scandal reminded of an espionage scandal unearthed under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well. It led to the ouster of Principal Secretary P.C Alexander, although his involvement was never proven. That case had made public corporate espionage by representatives of Eastern European countries. It had not been confined to the PMO, but had spread to key ministries and the President’s Office.

The officials investigating the present case suggested that the private individuals allegedly involved in corporate espionage were regular visitors and were well known in the concerned ministries. “Since they had made an acquaintance with the administrative setup even while the United Progressive Alliance was in power, the change in the government at the Centre did not restrict their access to the ministries,” a Petroleum Ministry official said. The Ministry was getting complaints from foreign investors that sensitive information provided to the Ministry was leaked “within hours” of being shared.

However, the investigators have so far recovered copies of about 150 important documents, including some that came into existence as recently as the first week of February, from the people allegedly involved in the spy ring. These include documents from the offices of Rajeev Kumar (Special Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum), Sandeep Poundrik (Joint Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum), Upendra Pratap Singh (Joint Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum) and Nalin Kumar Shrivastava (Oil India Ltd).

The police alleged that “incriminating” documents of the Coal, Power and other ministries were recovered from the possession of the accused who were supplying these to certain corporate houses for their benefit. This means most ministries have been broken in. The latest is that Defence Ministry, Forest and Environment Ministry and UPSC staffers have been taken into custody.

It seems so far India was run like Banana Republic and nothing was safe from prying eyes. The arrests too are of small fries, the big ones are free to enjoy the fruits of their ant-national activities. A lower rung babu said “We used to get cash, Bade logon ko flats or cars or foreign trips reward mein miltha tha.” In fact, one retired commissioner of police confirmed that people arrested so far are just foot soldiers.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. To send out a strong signal that it is indeed serious about this issue, the government needs to arrest senior officials of the private companies who had sought the information. Arresting some low-level private individuals is not enough,” he said.

Asked whether corporate honchos would be questioned even if not arrested, he just smiled.

More serious is the unravelling of the information about leakage of Budget inputs. This came just three days before the commencement of the Budget session of Parliament. Police also said that documents relating to the Power and Coal ministries were recovered from the people arrested initially.

Bassi said that Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar lifted documents indiscriminately. “The arrested people (Kumar and Prasad) did not steal particular documents. They instead used to lift any document lying on the table,” he said.

The theft of documents was taking place in the office of the ministry located in the high-security Shastri Bhawan near the Parliament House complex. The FIR details how the “secret papers” were photocopied after office hours by the arrested who used duplicate keys to open the offices after entering Shastri Bhawan on forged identity cards and temporary passes obtained fraudulently.

Meanwhile, a Reliance Industries official said the company has launched a “robust internal probe” into detention of one of its employees by Delhi Police in connection with alleged official document theft in the Oil Ministry. The company is determined to cooperate with the police probe in every possible ways, he added.

The frustrated Congress party leaders targeted Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan over his remarks that hinted at espionage in the Ministry allegedly having taken place during the UPA regime and demanded an apology from him.

The reach of the people involved in the corporate espionage case, in which sensitive Petroleum Ministry documents were being leaked, is greater than the government initially thought it to be. According to sources monitoring the investigation, the people involved in the spying ring were also arranging for sensitive information from the Ministry of Power, Ministry of Telecommunications, Ministry of Environment and Forests and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Sources revealed that the involvement of highly placed senior bureaucrats in the espionage cannot be ruled out.

“We are moving one step at a time, and have started from the bottom by arresting lower rung officials. Senior bureaucrats may be questioned in the coming weeks,” a source said.

According to officials, the investigation was not just limited to the ministries, but was also looking into the involvement of officials from certain Public Sector Undertakings. “Some very important information in the fields of energy and infrastructure, which was not just useful to certain corporate houses, but was also detrimental to national interest and should not have been in the public domain, was shared with private individuals.

“The sources of the leaks have been identified as the offices of some PSUs,” the source said. So far, investigators deny finding any evidence that might implicate a politician. Nor they so far received any verbal or written direction from political leaders asking them not to touch anyone from the corporate houses allegedly involved. “The leaked documents were intended for and demanded by some corporate houses. Therefore, sooner or later, individuals from these business houses too will have to be brought in,” said the source. The police has, so far, arrested 15 people in the case, including five government staffers, journalist Santanu Saikia, energy consultant Prayas Jain and executives from five energy companies. It is said that such espionage is not a new phenomenon. Its been happening albeit at a very small scale for the last 30 to 40 years. But the practice became more rampant and corporate houses started trying hard to influence government decisions, since the coalition-era politics.

“The influence of these corporate houses was clearly visible from the way they managed the appointment of joint secretaries in certain ministries. This even extended to appointments to the Prime Minister’s Office. The easy access that the representative of corporate houses had when it came to senior IAS officers clearly showed the influence of the corporate houses,” said an IAS officer who retired in 2012.

One Power Secretary, Sharma, an honest officer received a call in the evening that a particular file be cleared before the following morning else he won’t be the power secretary tomorrow. No shouting or menacing tone. But the honest Sharma did not clear the file. And since the following morning have ceased to be power secretary.

It is clear all this espionage is done for the ultimate benefit of the corporate bosses. Why else would public relations officers of companies and babus spy and risk their necks.

But one wonders whether the Big Bosses will be touched.

The present investigation will stop espionage for some time. And then it will start all over again. Businessman is avaricious, so is the government employees. Money is a human failing. As a wag put it, “Its not the money but dishonesty that keeps the world moving.”

Nothing to worry. We are as honest or dishonest as anyone in any other country.

Yeh kisi ek ke bare mein ya kisi ek ki khilaf nahi hai. Hamare ghar mein chori hui hai and humne competent system ko approach kiya is cheeze ko throughly investigate karne ke liye. (This is not about anyone {corporate} or against anyone. Our house has been burguled and we approached the competent authority for investigation).

“One thing is clear that this government will not allow anybody to subvert the system. This government is determined to punish those who break law.

“Nobody will be spared…nobody can breach law, howsoever powerful he may be… We will not allow anyone to breach the system.”

—Dharmendra Pradhan Minister of State (IC)

Ministry Of Petroleum and Natural Gas

By Vijay Dutt

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