Indian police hold company officials over oil ministry leaks

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian police have won court approval to hold five company officials for 72 hours as they investigate an alleged scam to steal documents from the oil ministry to sell to consultants and private companies.

The officials from Reliance Industries, Essar, Cairn India, Jubilant Energy and Reliance Power were arrested on Friday along with seven other people, Ravindra Yadav, Additional Commissioner of Delhi Police, told Reuters on Saturday.

One of the arrested people is former journalist Santanu Saikia, who now runs websites about the oil, power and fertiliser sectors.

Saikia said he was doing an undercover investigation into what he called a 100 billion rupees (S$2 billion) scam. "It's not right at all that I am being fixed like this," he told reporters while being taken to the court by plain clothes policemen.

The incident has raised political tensions, with leaders from both the ruling and opposition parties demanding no one guilty be let off irrespective of their position.

India's bureaucrats typically conduct business from handheld files and binders tied with string instead of computers, and accusations regularly surface that documents are copied and leaked ahead of major sales or tenders.

Oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan told the Times Now TV channel the main issue was that documents were stolen from his ministry in the middle of the night, a practice that may have been going on for years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration installed security cameras late last year to stop people sneaking out of the ministry with documents. The arrests were the first since they were introduced.

A government source has also told Reuters that Mr Modi has discussed the idea of making cabinet meetings paperless.

Police said on Thursday they received information that people were trespassing in ministry offices at night using false identity cards, temporary passes and duplicate keys for offices.

A Reliance Power spokesman said the company was not aware of the circumstances in which a "junior" employee was allegedly arrested, but that it would cooperate in the investigation. Essar too said it would cooperate, but that it had not authorised any acts that break the law.

Reliance Industries said it had learned of the arrest of one of its employees through the media. "We are ascertaining more details through an internal inquiry to understand the role of this personnel," a spokesman said.

A Cairn India spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment, while Jubilant energy could not be reached.