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Two pence for Cabinet notes but information worth a million

Companies use journalists as conduits and journalists use companies as conduits to get information out of the govt

Jyoti Mukul  |  New Delhi 

This article has been modified. Please see the clarification at the end.

'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' is what the indomitable said at a formal function in a plush Delhi hotel, when asked by a reporter in 2006 to respond to a question on an increase in liquid petroleum gas price. The function was being hosted to mark the signing of an agreement between Shell and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).

Aiyar had arrived a bit late at the event and stories of his being shown the door at the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas were already doing rounds in political circles. "It seems you and your friends have formed some sort of a network. This reminds me of the classic story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I am Ali Baba and you are the opposite side. You are talking about a note to the Cabinet. I do not understand from where you are collecting these Cabinet notes," Aiyar told the reporter who had flaunted a secret note in his possession.


Subir Raha, then chairman, and Vikram Singh Mehta, then Shell India chairman, were sharing the dais with him. Both Raha and Aiyar were media-friendly, but their bitter disputes were being fought openly in media, putting the minister under immense pressure.

The classic Arabian Nights story was not something that were pleased to write about, but the crackdown on a network in operation in the petroleum ministry leaking information to corporates and reporters, well known to everyone in the business of information gathering, is probably as easy to uncover as saying khul ja sim sim (open sesame). It was, therefore, probably the easiest thing for Commissioner to talk about since such networks have been in operation for decades.


Paid websites such as indianpetro.com upload government documents. Corporates subscribe to their services and sometimes even government officials themselves access the sites to get hold of a document to which they do not have access. But access can be difficult, yet easy. "If you need anything, let me know," a peon outside a joint secretary's office told a young reporter a few months ago. The joint secretary himself was in a bit of soup for being under informal probe of M Veerappa Moily, the third petroleum minister in the decade-long United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule at the Centre, for having allegedly leaked documents to the Left parties.

Although the joint secretary could have lost his job and had an inquiry instituted against him, many believed the leak was probably out of the time-tested network in operation, in not just the petroleum ministry, but all government departments.

The sifting of secretarial staff in the petroleum ministry had begun during late Murli Deora's tenure itself. An additional private secretary who had worked both with Aiyar and Ram Naik, the petroleum minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, was moved out. His son was an employee of Reliance Industries even while the father was serving the minister.


The crackdown began during Jaipal Reddy's tenure when a fresh band of peons and secretarial staff was placed, but information always has a premium, more so before the age of transparency in government functioning and the Right to Information Act. There is money to be made by ill-paid lower staff in the government hired largely on contract basis now.

Outside the government setup, companies, too, have become more transparent because regulatory norms require them to inform investors. Within the government, not all documents are classified as secret though getting information out of the officials is difficult for anyone including companies. Documents go through layers of bureaucracy and from one room to another, and can be accessed through an online filing system, too.

A seemingly inconsequential paper written in some archaic language can make an impact if the importance of it can be read by a trained journalist. Companies use as conduits and use companies as conduits to get information out of the government. Journalists get a good "story" which could even rake up a national controversy or simply become "breaking news". For companies, which may already know the decision in making because of the consultative process carried out by the government, could in return have their opinion placed in media through a reporter by giving a slant to it. In media parlance, it is called a "plant", which might not be factually incorrect but gives an impact analysis crucial for any healthy debate.

For politicians, too, the leaks are dried powder for training guns on the ruling party. It is not too long ago that anti-corruption activist turned Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has himself been a government employee, distributed documents to media straight out of government files.

Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party colleague Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer by training, made use of a guest list at Ranjit Sinha, former director, Central Bureau of Investigation, to turn the tables on the investigating agency termed earlier as "caged parrot" by the Supreme Court in a corruption case. Sinha, in turn, petitioned Bhushan's source of information be revealed.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's own member of Parliament, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, credited with unearthing coal scam had independently collected evidence on the coal allocation and approached the Central Vigilance Commissioner to investigate the matter much before the scandal blew up on UPA's face. Unlike politicians, however, companies and officials end up cases being registered against them for violation of Official Secrets Act.

CLARIFICATION

This article has been modified to incorporate a correction in an earlier version that had wrongly referred to Petrowatch.com as among paid websites that uploaded government documents. The error is regretted.

First Published: Sat, February 21 2015. 00:44 IST
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