“There was a discomfort that I felt…Some issues which I discussed (in closed doors) went outside. It (discomfort) was about the people who came quietly to the Ministry. I felt an internal surveillance should happen,” Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Petroleum and Natural Gas, said on the ‘corporate espionage’ that his Ministry has unearthed.

Pradhan is not the first Petroleum Minister to feel the ‘discomfort’. His predecessors — Mani Shankar Aiyar, Jaipal Reddy, M Veerappa Moily — had all faced the issue of classified documents being leaked even before a policy decision was taken.

‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’  is how Aiyar had termed it, describing himself as Ali Baba and media as the Forty Thieves. Moily had said that import lobbies ‘threaten’ the decision-making process of oil ministers.

Each of these Ministers tried his bit to check this by changing the ground level staff. But the story remained unchanged, as the entire mechanism of sourcing documents was well embedded into the system.

New techniques A decade ago, information was sold at ₹5,000. Today, the rate is around ₹50,000 or more. Tracking file movements and getting the notings photocopied has been a common practice for long. With technology, relevant portions of files being captured in the mobile cameras have also come to light.

‘Secret’ documents have found their way out from key Ministries, such as Telecom, Commerce & Industry and Environment and have been selectively leaked to journalists. ‘Paan’ shops across Sanchar Bhavan (that houses IT and Telecom Ministry) and Shastri Bhavan (that has some key Ministries) equipped with photocopying machines are hot-spots for the copying of ‘secret’ documents.

But what was unheard of was the use of duplicate keys and duplicate passes of the relevant rooms that were accessed after office hours. This time round, seven rooms were breached and papers taken out.

“I had heard that papers used to get leaked, but duplicate keys being made is something even I had no idea of. It is a very serious issue and it is theft now,” Pradhan said. While Pradhan refused to elaborate on the actual trigger, sources in the know said the process to nab the culprits began in June last year. “It is nothing related to one incident or one particular company. It was about the overall functioning and I felt we needed to be careful,” Pradhan said. A senior Ministry official said, “we wanted to catch them (the culprits) red-handed.”

While the investigating authorities are on the job, speculation is rife that this could not have happened without help from senior officials. “How can I reveal the names when the investigation is still on? This Government will not allow anyone to break the system,” Pradhan said.

Implementation of SOPs What will follow now is stricter implementation of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). “The SOP has to be adhered strictly right from my office to everybody,” Pradhan said.

As per SOP, a secret file either has to be given by hand or it goes into a sealed envelope. “If SOPs are not being adhered to, then these will be done. A lot of files are in sections that have to be kept in the open. You can’t put everything in a sealed room. We have to look at …where the SOP was not followed,” a senior Ministry official said.

With the lid blown off the ‘corporate spying’ case, it now remains to be seen how far the adherence to SOP goes and which key Ministries will be under the Government’s lens.

Some key Ministries like IT and Communications have already clamped down. Officers in the Department of Telecommunications have been told not to give any off-record briefings to the media.

Corporate agents, who were otherwise visible in various Government departments, have gone under the radar. “For the last two days, we have not received any new documents. All trails have gone cold,” said one of the agents seen often in the Department of Telecom.