Corporate spies in the corridors of power

The ongoing investigation into the theft of documents from the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas reveals the ugly face of crony capitalism.

Published : Mar 04, 2015 12:30 IST

The accused before they were produced in a court in Delhi on February 21.

The accused before they were produced in a court in Delhi on February 21.

IT had all the makings of a crime thriller—spies with duplicate keys, traps laid by the police, and the car chase. On the night of February 18, officers of the Delhi Police, who had prior information about an espionage network, kept a watch on three persons coming in an Indigo car to Shastri Bhavan, the iconic “corridor of power” which houses some of the key economic Ministries in New Delhi. Two persons got down and the third remained inside the car. After about two hours, when the duo returned to the car, all three of them were caught for stealing photocopies of classified documents of the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas (MoPNG).

Corporate conglomerates influencing key economic policy decisions and having a stranglehold on the corridors of power are widely acknowledged facts about the aftermath of economic liberalisation. But, the dirty secrets of the corporate hold over key institutions of the state came literally tumbling out following the busting of an elaborate espionage network by the Delhi Police. It only got murkier later in the week with five corporate executives being arrested. As news spread of a Reliance executive among those arrested, there were murmurs about the government finally taking on the all-powerful corporate entity which has often been in the news for allegedly cornering undue favours.

The arrests of the accused have only brought to the fore the intricate ways in which corporate interests get access to the corridors of power.

The involvement of the officials of the Ministry has raised serious questions about the manner in which confidential information relating to major policy decisions is handled in the Union Ministries. Going by the first information report (FIR) filed by the Delhi Police in the case, which lists out some of the documents that were leaked out, it is evident that the corporates were getting access to significant policy documents before they were finalised.

Informed sources say the practice of leaking out secret information to serve corporate interests has existed for almost 10 years now. According to a retired bureaucrat who used to work with the Ministry a few years ago, information was leaked by officials at an alarming frequency, at times almost daily, in collusion with officials at the highest level.

The accused At the time of writing this article, 13 persons have been arrested by the Delhi Police in the case of leaking confidential documents of the MoPNG. They include two former multitasking staffers of the MoPNG, Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar; three middlemen, Ishwar Singh, Raj Kumar Chaubey and Asharam; and two energy consultants, Santanu Saikia, a former journalist, who runs a Web portal called, and Prayas Jain, CEO of an oil and gas consultancy, Metis India.

Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar are sons of Asharam and were frequent visitors to the Ministry. The police told the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Sanjay Khanagwal, that, Asharam, also an employee in the MoPNG, used to switch off CCTV cameras installed in the Ministry to enable his sons to enter the office using fake entry cards which they had procured for Rs.4,000 each. Five corporate executives—Shailesh Saxena, manager, corporate affairs, Reliance Industries Limited; Subhash Chandra, senior executive, Jubilant Energy; Rishi Anand, deputy general manager, Reliance Power (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group); Vinay Kumar of Essar; and K.K. Naik, general manager, Cairn India—were also in the net.

On February 24, the Delhi Police arrested Virender Singh, a multitasking staffer at the Ministry of Defence. Singh is accused of helping one of the primary accused, Lalta Prasad, to enter the MoPNG with a forged identity card. According to the police version, Singh also provided Prasad with blank official letter pads, which were misused.

On February 23, the Delhi Police filed another FIR pertaining to the leak of official documents from the Ministries of Coal and Power. Lokesh Sharma, a Noida-based consultant, was arrested by the police in connection with the leaks. He is alleged to have connections with both Santanu Saikia and Prayas Jain. The police allege that Sharma has been involved in procuring documents for the past three or four years. Sharma was allegedly carrying two forged identity cards of the Ministries of Coal and Power and various official and secret documents.

Official secrets According to the FIR registered by the police on February 18, Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar and their associates have been booked under Sections 457 (lurking house-trespass by night), 380 (theft in dwelling house, etc.), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.

They were involved in procuring, obtaining and stealing the official secret documents of the MoPNG. They were allegedly doing so in connivance with the staff of the Ministry using fake identity cards and duplicate keys.

The police claimed to have recovered separately from Rakesh Kumar and Lalta Prasad three temporary passes used to enter the offices at Shastri Bhavan. The five corporate executives were booked under Sections 411 (receiver of stolen property) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code. The two energy consultants, Santanu Saikia and Prayas Jain, were accused of receiving stolen information.

On February 20, Delhi Police Commissioner B.S. Bassi claimed that depending on the nature of the documents recovered, the police might use the Official Secrets Act against the accused if necessary.

Some of the documents recovered were indeed significant: input material on national grid for inclusion in the Finance Minister’s Budget Speech 2015-16; documents of an urgent meeting of the MoPNG dated February 13, 2015; documents forwarded by the Prime Minister’s Office; papers of the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell with the heading “Monthly Gas Report of December 2014” dated February 16, 2015; documents of the Exploration Division, MoPNG, with the front page signed by Deputy Secretary Nalin Kumar Srivastava along with a background note; and documents of a presentation to the Secretary, MoPNG, about ONGC Videsh Limited, the international petroleum company of India, dated February 16, 2015.

Critical information An officer who retired from the MoPNG some years ago outlined how this was something that had been going on for almost 10 years. He told Frontline that officials in the Ministry had a cavalier attitude towards the stealing of confidential documents and that in spite of leaks on a daily basis, no action was ever taken to check this malaise. He felt that the rot had gone too deep that people had become used to the corruption as it was seen to come down from the highest levels. The peons were certainly involved with the opening of rooms at night even 10 years ago, he said.

The officer recounted how he had himself been a victim of leakages on two occasions. He said that once his tour report to an important country was leaked and published even before it was finalised. On another occasion, when an Indian delegation had arrived in the capital of a neighbouring country for commercial negotiations, he found that their entire mandate with commercial figures was published in a financial daily before the talks could begin.

Ashok Rao, president of the National Confederation of Officer’s Association of public sector enterprises, said, “There has to be a dynamic assessment and evaluation of information in the Ministry followed by holding the officers concerned personally responsible for the files. This incident clearly shows that critical information on policy matters is not protected. Also, the government has to ensure that no correspondence of the government goes through unauthorised channels. A number of senior government officials continue to use Gmail for correspondence. This is not secure.” Most former officials and bureaucrats feel that this is only an uncovering of what was already a well-known fact—the stranglehold of big corporates on the MoPNG.

Highly placed sources described the ways in which big corporates had gained control over the functioning of the Ministry. They also interfered in the appointment of officials, placed officials on their payroll, and set up sources at various levels to obtain government documents.

An impeccable source further said that a particular business house even manipulated the appointment of Secretaries and Joint Secretaries. In fact, it is widely believed that the removal of Mani Shankar Aiyar and S. Jaipal Reddy as Cabinet Ministers of the MoPNG during the United Progressive Alliance’s first term in power (2004-2009) was a direct result of its intervention; they were replaced by Ministers who were friendly to that house. Mani Shankar Aiyar was replaced by Murli Deora and Jaipal Reddy was replaced by M. Veerappa Moily.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, in his book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis (2014), hints at international factors being responsible for the exit of Mani Shankar Aiyar from the MoPNG in January 2006, but adds that he was not exactly on the best of terms with the undivided Ambani family.

Government’s anti-corruption stance On February 11, 2014, the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) of the Delhi government, during the 49-day rule of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government led by Arvind Kejriwal, had filed an FIR against former Petroleum Ministers, the late Murli Deora and M. Veerappa Moily, and former Director General of Hydrocarbons V. K. Sibal and RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani. The FIR alleged collusion between Reliance and the Ministers of the UPA government to allow a doubling of the price of natural gas. The case related to a formula designed by the UPA government, based on international prices, which would have doubled the price of natural gas from $4.2 per million metric British thermal units (mmBTU) to $8.4 per mmBTU. But this did not lead to anyone being booked.

In May 2014, RIL approached the Delhi High Court for the FIR to be quashed, arguing that gas pricing was a policy decision of the Centre and therefore it was outside the ambit of the ACB of the Delhi government. In this instance, the Centre took a stance in favour of Reliance. It informed the court that the ACB could only investigate corruption cases involving the employees of the Delhi government. After coming to power on February 14 this year, the AAP has promised to take up the issue again. As of now, the FIR is pending investigation. The next hearing of the case in the High Court is listed for April 20.

The return of the AAP to power in Delhi and the Central government’s sudden enthusiasm in uncovering crony capitalism may well be a coincidence. But the facts of the AAP’s case against Reliance have a bearing on the corporate espionage case as well, if one seeks to understand the latter’s larger implications for corporate rivalry and corporate greed.

The spate of arrests following the corporate espionage case may suggest that the Central government is after all taking on corruption, and not sparing even employees of big business houses, and its sincerity in doing so must not be doubted. Most observers, however, do not want to read too much into this. In particular, it is pointed out that the government’s stance in the ongoing case between the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and RIL in the Delhi High Court shows that the Modi government, like its predecessor, continues to befriend big business houses.

In June 2014, ONGC approached the Delhi High Court accusing RIL of theft of natural gas from its Bay of Bengal block. It has been alleged in ONGC’s petition that RIL had pumped about 18 billion cubic metres of gas worth Rs.30,000 crore from ONGC’s reservoir close to the common boundary of the blocks in the Krishna-Godavari basin beginning 2009. In August 2014, the MoPNG, in an affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court, pleaded for the rejection of the petition filed by ONGC and termed it “frivolous”.

In a letter to the MoPNG, Tapan Sen, Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), highlighted this gross anomaly: “ONGC is one of the pioneer institutions in the country in exploration of gas and oil and their complaints must be based on their techno-geophysical findings. My simple query is that on what basis did the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas conclusively arrive at the conclusion that ONGC’s complaint is ‘frivolous allegation’? Does such conclusion have requisite support of similar techno-geophysical examination? If so, by which agency? Ministry’s observations that ONGC ‘woke up from slumber only in July 2013’ or ONGC ‘was never vigilant and mindful of its rights’ are not wholly correct. In fact, geological and geophysical data of all the relevant blocks KG-DWN-98/3, and G-4 Godavari and KG-DWN-98/2 blocks are being regularly supplied and appraised to the Ministry and the Director General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) since long. Even if we assume for arguments’ sake, ONGC delayed in making such complaints or it remained negligent or was not alert enough on its rights, etc., but such delay or negligence, if there be any, cannot justify such illegitimate drawal of natural gas from ONGC’s field by the private operator operating in the adjoining area.”

On September 2, 2014, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan, in his reply to Sen’s letter, refused to comment on the issue as the matter was sub judice.

In the last hearing of the case in the Delhi High Court on January 21, RIL stated that an independent expert body, the United States-based DeGolyer and MacNaughton, would examine the question of continuity of reservoir and gas balancing across the two blocks of RIL and ONGC in the KG basin. The Centre, represented by Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain, backed the appointment of the expert panel by both RIL and ONGC under the supervision of DGH to conclusively establish whether RIL “stole” gas from ONGC’s wells. The panel is likely to give its report in June this year.

Advocate Pranav Sachdeva, appearing for an intervener in the case, insisted that the report of the panel be submitted to the court before a decision was taken by the government on ONGC’s petition. The next hearing of the case is on April 22.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on ONGC to withdraw its petition against RIL. The government has suggested to the High Court that the pending case be treated as infructuous, following the setting up of the expert panel. The proceedings and outcome of this case can only strengthen the proposition that corporate houses stand to immensely benefit from advance information about the government’s stand in expensive litigation involving corporate feuds with public sector undertakings.

The investigation into the corporate espionage case has amply demonstrated the extent of penetration of corporate malpractices in institutions of governance. It has brought out into the public domain what was until now in the realm of hearsay and conjecture. However, it is too early to say if this will translate into decisive action against crony capitalism and strike at the roots of power that corporates wield over decisions concerning the larger public interest, such as pricing and allocation of natural resources. The hold of corporates on the political class is deeply entrenched. The leakage of confidential documents from a Ministry is just the tip of the iceberg.

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