The Delhi Police crime branch on Thursday said it had unearthed a corporate espionage racket following the arrest of five persons who allegedly leaked confidential documents from the Union ministry of petroleum.
The Delhi Police also raided the local office of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL). Sources said an employee at RIL’s Delhi office was being questioned in connection with the case.
RIL has been locked in a dispute with the oil ministry after it was made to give up a portion of the gas fields in the Krishna-Godavari basin, and the two sides are scheduled to begin an arbitration process.
Addressing the media on Thursday evening, Delhi police commissioner BS Bassi said: “On Tuesday night, police received information that some persons had sneaked into Shastri Bhawan (at about 11pm). Our team laid a trap outside and waited. After about two hours, when they came out and met their third associate, we nabbed them. Their interrogation later led to the arrest of two others.”
Though the police refused to disclose the nature of the leaked documents, source said the papers pertained to pricing and other policy matters relating to the petroleum ministry.
Till late Thursday evening, the police were also questioning a former journalist who was allegedly the intended recipient of the documents. This former journalist, who runs a business news portal and an energy consultancy firm in New Delhi, has been buying secret documents from the arrested persons for the past year and a half.
It is a common practice for companies to engage consultants to procure documents and engage in other acts that they don’t want to be directly associated with.
Police sources said the former journalist and four of his associates could also be arrested in connection with this case.
"The police is probing the case. We will take strong action against the guilty,” petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan said. "In the past, documents used to be freely transferred out... The new government is very conscious about leakages and surveillance has been stepped up.”
The five arrested persons were identified as Ishwar Singh and Asharam, two peons at Shastri Bhawan, Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar, Ashraram’s sons, and a fifth associate, Raj Kumar Chaubey.
They had procured fake identity cards and made duplicate keys to the offices inside Shastri Bhawan, which were used to enter the offices. They were paid between Rs 5,000 and Rs 1 lakh per document depending on their importance.
Joint Commissioner of Police(Crime) Ravindra Yadav said, “Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar had worked with the petroleum ministry in 2012. They realised they could easily lay their hands on the government files. They were assisted by their father Asharam and Ishwar. The accused persons even disabled the recently installed CCTV cameras before entering the building.”
“It has been brought to our notice that one RIL employee has been detained by law-enforcement authorities. We are unaware of more details. As per standard operating procedure, a robust internal probe is underway,” a RIL executive said, adding that the company is cooperating with the authorities in every possible manner.
In 1998, V Balasubramaniam (Balu), then India's foremost lobbyist and Reliance Industries’ man in Delhi, was charged and arrested under the Officials Secret Act. He was booked for possessing confidential government documents that included Cabinet notes and minutes of meetings marked “Secret”.
Then home Secretary BP Singh was reportedly instructed by home minister LK Advani to ensure that no unwarranted exceptions were made in Official Secrets Act cases. The CBI was also involved in the Act. The matter is pending in court.
Soon after the incident, companies became cautious about directly dealing with ministries and the culture of hiring consultancy firms mushroomed in various sectors such as energy, telecom, civil aviation and others that were heavily regulated by the government.
Many of these “consultants” are former journalists with good contacts in the ministries. Typically, they launch websites dealing with news on particular industries. This gives them an excuse to visit the ministries and maintain contacts with senior bureaucrats as well as other staff members.
These “consultants” then procure secret documents and pass them on to their principals in return for hefty fees.