Leaks in Oil Ministry had Congress leaders’ blessings

S.Nagesh Kumar

HYDERABAD: The Oil Ministry in Delhi may be leaking like a sieve with sensitive papers, some linked to the upcoming budget, finding their way out, but it was mostly like that in this cash-rich Ministry.

“Lobbyists for the petroleum sector ruled the roost for a good part of the previous UPA regime. “There was no need to steal the papers as Ministry itself was only too willing to share them stealthily with corporate entities” said a source in an obvious reference to a top Congress leader’s cosy relationship with a top-notch honcho in the petroleum sector.

“One had to spend a few thousand or perhaps a few lakhs of rupees to access critical documents as political leaders looked the other way. “Even this amount was not necessary when the Petroleum Ministry was under the watch of Murli Deora for full five years”, the sources said.  The `industry-friendly’ Mr. Deora had replaced the rather rigid Mani Shankar Aiyyar as Petroleum Minister in 2006 at the instance of the Congress high command.

A similar fate befell S. Jaipal Reddy as the petroleum lobby was not satisfied by him. After a brief 20-month-long stint, he was replaced by Veerappa Moily considered by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to be pliable.

Jaipal Reddy stripped of Petroleum portfolio

Mr. Reddy, who prides in describing himself as cast in the Nehruvian mould where power brings joy only if it is misused, had made his office leak-proof. He gave Mukesh Ambani’s RIL a run for its money but ended up being stripped of his portfolio and given Science and Technology, a subject he did not seem to relish.

Besides the Minister himself, copies of sensitive documents and minutes of important deliberations, invariably typewritten, were meant only for the eyes of the Petroleum Secretary, the Joint Secretary and PS to the Minister, also an IAS officer.

The logic of denying access to officials of the rank of Deputy Secretary rank and below was the fear that they may fall prey to inducements of private lobbyists more easily than the IAS officers. In fact, the five persons arrested by Delhi Police for theft and sale of official secrets to private corporates in the petroleum sector were relatively junior officials though those in Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) were at the executive level.

RIL has since said it had no role in the corporate espionage case. “No information having commercial consequences to the company resides in the Oil Ministry with which it is in arbitration in several cases”. This is quite an interesting statement as RIL seems to know which information resides in the Ministry.

Sources told Primepost that IAS officers were considered as having a lesser stake in wheeling-dealing in the Ministry as their jobs were transferable from one Ministry to another and from the Centre to the State. They would not put their careers at stake by seem to be hobnobbing with the powerful petroleum lobby comprising giants like RIL, Essar and Adani. This might not be the case with subordinate staff who start and end their careers in the same Ministry and wouldn’t mind making a quick buck on the sly.

Finance, Law Ministries are also targets of espionage

Sources further said that apart from the Oil Ministry, the Ministries of Finance and Law were the primary targets of lobbyists and brokers. However fool-proof a Ministry would make its systems, sensitive documents would leak from another. This happened when the correspondence between Mr. Jaipal Reddy and then Solicitor General Rohinton Nariman on steps to bringing to book RIL for failing to fulfill its contractual commitment on production from KG Basin leaked.

The source of the leak was traced to the Law Ministry where the documents had been sent for  opinion. Mukesh Ambani was able to file for arbitration immediately and scuttled the Petroleum Ministry’s plans to serve a notice to RIL for cutting down on its gas production from the D6 block of the KG basin off the Andhra coast.

Mr. Jaipal Reddy’s persistence with making the Petroleum Ministry less porous was one reason why he was stripped of his portfolio. The bigger one was, of course, the string of letters he wrote to the Prime Minister opposing RIL’s high pressure campaign for hiking the price of gas extracted from the D6 block which would leave the national exchequer poorer by thousands of crores.  The Minister chose to take on Mukesh Ambani at the cost of earning the ire of his party bosses.

He not only questioned the steep decline in gas production from the D6 block. The Dhirubhai 1 and 3 gas fields in the block had witnessed a drop in output from about 34 million cubic metres a day compared to 61.88 mmcd target. Mr. Reddy also ordered a probe by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) against RIL. A scrutiny of expenditure which the company had claimed to have incurred in bringing KG D6 into production showed that it was grossly inflated. The Government disallowing an expenditure of $1.4 billion for RIL’s failure to maintain gas output from the KG basin facility.

Delhi police have earned kudos for nabbing the culprits in the corporate espionage case, reportedly at the instance of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who found that vital information to which few were supposed to be privy was leaking out. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Prasad will have a lot of explaining to do in Parliament. Simply affirming that ‘those who subverted the system will be punished’ won’t do.

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