The arrest of a clutch of junior petroleum ministry employees and “energy consultants” for stealing sensitive files is a sign that the government plans to puncture the power that comes from privileged information. This is a welcome development. For too long, Delhi has been the hotbed of such mercenary activity, suggesting that the systems followed at most ministries are grievously compromised, giving resourceful companies a free run. It has thus been possible for big industrial groups to have a clear idea of policy when it is in the making; from there, to try and turn the policy in a direction favourable to them is but a small step.
Having key ministries permeable to large-scale infiltration is a frightening prospect. Petroleum is sensitive enough; worse would be leaks from other sensitive ministries like defence. What is possibly a case of Indian corporates jockeying for advantage could swiftly turn into a question of national security. Key contracts will come under scrutiny, and a mood of suspicion could paralyse government functioning.
Clearly, using technology to plug holes is part of the answer: CCTVs watching ministry peons to the use of tablets and e-readers that would enable paperless Cabinet meetings – these are measures that must be put in place. But the solution also lies in good old-fashioned vetting: Background checks on junior ministry staff clearly need to be stepped up, and periodic surveillance needs to become part of the drill in every ministry. Needless to say, the current investigation gives the authorities the opportunity to uproot these noxious weeds.
The arrests also raise questions about the role of consultancies, or well-connected middlemen with access inside ministries. By no stretch of imagination do all these consultants indulge in illegal acts, but there are some who do. Clients abroad are willing to pay top dollar for a look into the innards of government and the incentive for corruption is high.
Of course, in clamping down on the dishonest dissemination of information, the government should resist the temptation to choke off the flow of information per se; for journalists dealing with a control-oriented administration, that is a real concern. A distinction needs to be made between journalists uncovering material in the interest of public good, and middlemen selling such material for profit.
Just as technology is used for surveillance and to prevent leaks, it must also be used to bring about greater transparency when policy is in place. Removing information asymmetry is the imperative of any forward-looking government, even if getting rid of crooked means to such asymmetry is the sharp end.