By Sushmita Sihwag:
With the arrest of two more people in the Leakgate case, the radius of the national-level scandal only seems to be getting larger. The CBI recently arrested Ram Niwas, an assistant in the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), and Paresh Chimanlal Buddhadev, a partner in Chitale Associates, a Mumbai-based legal firm, for their alleged involvement in the corporate espionage case.
What is corporate espionage?
‘Corporate espionage’, also known as ‘industrial espionage’ or ‘economic espionage’, can be defined as “the theft of trade secrets by the removal, copying, or recording of confidential or valuable information in a company for use by a competitor. Industrial espionage is conducted for commercial purposes rather than national security purposes (espionage).”
“Corporate espionage involves a wide range of activities for gathering crucial and profitable information about the ideas, techniques, and activities of other corporation(s), including, but not limited to, theft of trade secrets, blackmail, bribery, and technological surveillance.”
How the scandal unfolded
1. On the night of February 19th, Delhi Police apprehended three persons for invading the premises of Shastri Bhawan, after receiving a tip off that two persons and 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 on February 17,” said Delhi Police commissioner BS Bassi. The three accused, identified as Lalta Prasad, Rakesh Kumar, and Raj Kumar Chaubey, were in possession of official documents at the time of their arrest. Asharam and Ishwar Singh are two other multi-tasking staff employees at the Bhawan,who were arrested after their names were disclosed by the accused.
2. In the days following these arrests, Delhi police conducted raids at the offices of various top energy firms and arrested five senior executives and two energy consultants. The executives were employees of RIL, Jubilant energy, ADAG, Essar, and Cairn India. These executives used to receive these stolen documents. The two consultants, Santanu Saikia and Prayas jain, used to serve as middlemen for the ministry underlings and corporations. Various documents of national importance and security were seized from their offices during the raids.
3. Another string of arrests and detentions followed these – from the key player Lokesh Sharma, an energy consultant, to the employees of various ministries, each day the police made fresh developments and unearthed a scandal that sent shock waves across many government departments. The controversy threatens to have a far-reaching impact, with ministries such as coal, power, forest and environment, and even defence entering the list of compromised departments.
4. A new twist came in the case, when it was reported that two government officials were involved in selling documents related to foreign investment policies. Police arrested Ashok Kumar Singh, Under-secretary in Department of Disinvestment and Grievances, and Lala Ram Sharma, Section Officer in the Department of Economic Affairs, along with Mumbai-based chartered accountant, Khemchand Gandhi who passed on these documents to the big corporate groups. During the interrogation they revealed some big names in the banking, pharmaceuticals, and realty businesses. These people were the beneficiaries of this scam. It was revealed that big corporations, such as DLF, HDFC, IndusInd Bank, and Glenmark pharmaceuticals benefited from this leak.
After the national security adviser, Ajit Doval expressed his concern over the reporting of classified information in the media, intelligence agencies launched an investigation into the matter, thus leading to a crackdown on corporate espionage.
The modus operandi
1. The staffers (present and former) had forged entry passes and IDs to enter the ministries after office hours. The last staffers to leave would disable the CCTV camera before exiting the office. They used duplicate keys to access the rooms of senior-level officers and stole or photocopied whatever documents they could get they their hands on.
2. These documents were then sold to middlemen, who in turn resold these to big corporate groups, at times charging lakhs and crores of rupees, depending on their “usefulness.”
3. The method of exchanging the documents was no less dramatic than a Hollywood spy movie. The hand-over would take place in restaurants, metro stations, or while brushing past each other in crowded streets. Drop points were pre-decided, such as photocopy and Paan stalls near the ministries, where the receivers would pick up the documents using an identification code.
4. The middlemen then sold these documents to companies for hefty amounts, which used the information to their advantage and made windfall gains.
The leaking of classified information about government policies poses a serious threat to national security and integrity. It’s both shocking and baffling as to how easy it is to access confidential documents from the ministries by using fraudulent IDs and duplicate keys. More than anything, it highlights a major lapse in the administration’s security measures. Acknowledging these systematic gaps, oil minister, Dharmendra Pradhan said, “Everything aside, it is a systemic failure. Let’s admit it. While investigation is on there is also a need for us inside the ministry to see whether SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) was being followed. There is a well laid out SOP for confidential and secret files. This has to be followed strictly. Period.”
As far as the commercial impact of these leaks is concerned, it’s quite clear that corporate groups benefited greatly from the leaked information. Since they got to know the government’s policy decisions well in advance, they manoeuvred their business and legal strategies to make immense profits. Some of the documents recovered during the raids were highly confidential and had not yet reached the Prime Minister’s table or Parliament.
Even more disturbing are the recently reported statements of some of the senior officials which suggest that the operation of stealing information had long been an open secret within the industry, the bureaucracy, and the media, “We thought MTS (multi-tasking staff) would be making copies of documents in between carrying files from one officer to another. Or when someone asks for four copies of a documents, maybe they were making one extra copy and passing on to the corporate contact. But making duplicate key to rooms of seven senior officers and coming in late night was something no one anticipated,” said a senior government official.
As for the common man, this is yet another example of the rampant corruption that infests the Indian bureaucratic system in which the “custodians and initiators of the confidential documents’’ themselves were involved in selling crucial information. Indeed, this is “national interest taken for a ride”.