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Unholy nexus gets murkier

In probably the biggest newsbreak of 2015, the Delhi police arrested seven men for their involvement in the theft and sale of official secrets of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to private corporate entities in the petrochemical sector. The Delhi police Crime Branch is now trying to ascertain which petroleum companies were involved in the conspiracy. Latest reports suggest that former staffers of the ministry, a former journalist and an energy consultant were among those arrested.  In addition, an employee of the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest private sector company, is among those detained. 

As a consequence, the Crime Branch raided the offices of RIL, although the company vehemently denies any wrongdoing in the matter. Other companies reportedly under the scanner include the Essar Group, Cairn Group and the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. Reports suggest that the accused were allegedly in possession of classified documents related to policies for oil exploration, pricing as well as imports, allied with recommendations for the upcoming Union Budget and sensitive documents of  coal, power and other such ministries. Such practice, however, is nothing new according to senior bureaucrats at the Centre.

Government officials have been known to pass information to corporate bigwigs for monetary considerations, a practice that has allegedly gone on for decades. This information is then used to influence government policy and as a consequence it ensures windfall gains for corporate entities. Some of these entities have also been known to plant stories in the media to build pressure on the government and swing public opinion in their favour.

This incident, however, is not the first time such a practice was exposed. In October 1998, raids on the residence of V Balasubramaniam, the Group President of the then undivided Reliance Group and the company’s chief lobbyist in the national capital, found classified details from a cabinet meeting, among other such sensitive documents. These documents were reportedly faxed from the Group President’s office to a Mumbai number, although no further details have been forthcoming. Criminal cases were subsequently filed against Balasubramaniam and other senior executives of Reliance under the Official Secrets Act. More than 16 years later, however, the very trial against these company officials is yet to be completed.

The oil ministry has always been under the scanner for many of its decisions in the past. The details of the Radia Tapes showed the Indian public how corporate houses were instrumental in forcing the Centre to change top officials and ministers in the ministry, let alone revealing details of official secrets. One hopes, however, that times have changed in an era where anti-corruption and probity in public life have come into sharp public view. The Centre must take stringent action on those involved in the racket and come down hard on the thriving corporate-bureaucrat nexus.
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