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Probe into Espionage Case Opens a Pandora's Box

The level at which corporate spies penetrated into the government infrastructure that houses ministries was more than one could imagine.

Published: 22nd February 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd February 2015 08:42 AM   |  A+A-

espionage-PTI

NEW DELHI:Time, 9 pm. Venue, Shastri Bhawan on Dr Rajendra Prasad Road in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi, home to Union ministries and the country’s powerful ministers and bureaucrats. The building houses several sensitive Central ministries and departments. A white Indigo Car having registration number DL 13 C 4734 screeches to a halt at Gate number 1 of the building. Unaware of the watchful police spotters, Lalta Prasad and Rakesh, two former employees of the Oil Ministry, make their way inside with an empty bag. In the car, their accomplice and driver Raj Kumar Chaubey is at the wheel, ready to take off at any moment. It was a wait for two nerve racking hours for the crack team from the Intelligence Bureau and the Crime Branch of Delhi Police, including Neeraj Kumar, Ajeet, Surender Rathee, Satbir and Vijender. At 11 pm, the two men emerge and the police team swoop down on the suspects. The duo were then bundled into an unmarked vehicle. Later, it was revealed that the bag carried by the suspects were filled with photocopies of classified documents, temporary I-Cards of Shastri Bhawan and the Defence Audit Department, along with 11 keys of office rooms and ministry officials’ cupboards. The storm that followed indicated the Modi Government’s resolve to crack down on corporate espionage, which was rampant during the previous UPA regime.

Pandora’s Box.JPGUnion Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh expressed the Centre’s resolve by saying on Saturday that classified document thefts have been happening “for a long time”, but no guilty person would be spared. “Everything will be clear. No guilty person will be spared and strictest punishment will be given to them,” he told reporters on the arrest of a former journalist, government clerks and corporate executives, who were allegedly involved in stealing secret documents from the Oil Ministry -- a scam, which arrested journalist Shantanu Saikia alleges is worth over Rs 10,000 crore.

Pandora’s Box1.JPGThe superspy of Modi’s team, NSA Ajit Doval, is driving the surveillance operation on major  ministries to sensitise the officials on classified files regarding economic reform. Working in coordination with him is IB chief Dineshwar Sharma to expose the spy network operating in various other ministries. Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth will act as the preventor and he plans to put all Cabinet notes on Kindle devices. Delhi Police chief Bassi enjoys the confidence of both Modi and Rajnath, who handed over the corporate espionage case to the Delhi Police instead of the CBI, which was recently discredited by its former chief for allegedly hobnobbing with corporate executives.

A quarantined room at Chankyapuri Crime Branch Police station is flooded with sacks, containing photocopies of government documents related to several ministries that were seized during a coordinated search operation mounted by the Delhi Police following the arrests. These include highly classified correspondence between the Indian Embassy in Kuwait and Oil Secretary Saurabh Chandra, and the CAG report on hydrocarbons. An Oil Ministry official paper noting on Panna-Mukta and Tapti joint venture was also found. Then, there is a file on Ravva crude price mechanisms.

According to a source, among the five corporate executives arrested on  Friday, Subhash Chanda, a senior executive of Jubilant Energy, had earlier worked as PA to Under Secretary (Exploration) in the Oil Ministry during January, 2004-February, 2008. Chanda, who was posted at Shastri Bhawan office, was responsible for co-ordination with various Oil PSUs and acted as support staff in drafting letters and power point presentation. He joined Jubilant Energy in January 2008 and his resume  suggests that he is “resourceful in liaisoning and networking with various local authorities and government, regulatory and statutory bodies for securing necessary clearances, approvals and sanctions”.

The sustained interrogation of two arrested Oil Ministry employees Asharam and Ishwar Singh, energy consultant and former journalist Santanu Saikia, CEO of Metis Business Prayas Jain and five corporate executives of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG), Essar Group, and Cairns and Jubilant Energy reveals that top secret policy documents were being passed on to the desi and foreign firms for sums ranging from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh for years, seriously compromising the prospects of the country’s energy sector.

An investigator said Asha Ram, a multi-task staffer in the Oil Minister’s office, and his two accused sons Lalta and Rakesh received about Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 per photo copy for top secret documents stolen from the offices of directors and Joint Secretaries of the Oil Ministry. Initial probe suggests that “Analysis Reports” prepared on the basis of secret documents were subsequently sold off to clients and firms based in the US, Dubai, France, South Korea, UK and Spain.Lalta and Rakesh had worked as multi-task staffer for a few years on contract basis and quit in 2012. However, their rendezvous at Shastri Bhawan continued. 

“Huge sums were directly transferred to their bank accounts using legitimate channels,” said a source.

“On the basis of the seized documents, it could be ascertained that they copied the documents from files as and when it was ready. Some documents had not even been seen and signed by the Secretary and Minister,” the investigator added.

The arrested energy consultants were running websites, which charged undisclosed subscription amounts to gain access to classified “Analysis and Project” reports.

For access, fake government passes came in handy for the spies. Both Lalta and Rakesh had fake temporary passes of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Audit Department of Defence Services. Rajkumar Chaubey, a close aide of Lalta and Rakesh, had a media identity card of Lok Jagriti Patrika Press. The police have also recovered cupboards full of secret files that were out of bounds for lower-level employees as per the standard operating procedure on handling classified documents. The haul yielded documents not only from the Oil Ministry but also from the Ministry of Chemical and Fertilizers, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, and the Coal Ministry.

All five executives of the country’s top energy and oil firms -- RIL Corporate Affairs Manager Shailesh Saxena, Essar DGM Vinay Kumar, K K Naik of Cairns, Subhash Chanda of Jubilant Energy and Rishi Anand of Reliance ADAG -- were sent to three days’ police custody by a local court on Friday.

Intelligence sources told Express that the rot within the system, which flourished during the Manmohan Singh-led UPA regime due to crony capitalism, was evident from the fact that the corporate espionage ring was operating under the nose of several law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the heart of national capital before a crackdown was launched by the new government. The level at which corporate spies penetrated into the government infrastructure that houses ministries, which hold the key to the economic reforms and measures promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was more than one could imagine. It was infested with corporate lobbyists, who had gained unhindered access when 2G and Coalgate were dominating the national debate on corruption and connivance.

2G was the biggest example of corporate espionage penetration in the system where a chosen few had prior information on government moves related to spectrum auction. The windfall gain, as suggested by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), was Rs 1.69 lakh crore, benefiting the private players who cultivated officials and ministers in Sanchar Bhawan. The scam saw imprisonment of  a minister, owners of private companies and certain key officials, but the cogs in the corporate espionage wheel -- the consultants and corporate executives -- continued to operate with impunity.

The Coalgate yielded windfall gains worth Rs 1.86 lakh crore to private players. Interestingly, the penetration of corporate espionage racket was so deep in the Coal Ministry that about 257 files went missing in 2013, when the CBI wanted to probe the links of government officials with private players. Recovery of some of the files was delayed through the connivance of the government officials. 

The Modi-led NDA Government, which came to power riding on promises of economic reforms, was made aware of the rot by advisors and loyal babus. Sources said this was perhaps the reason why the UPA-appointed private secretaries and lower-level clerks in the Ministers’ Offices were removed

Doval, a seasoned intelligence operative, had issued directives to all the ministries to ensure that confidential files were protected. Between October and December, the Centre had mounted surveillance on suspicious visitors to ministries.

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