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Indian corporate espionage scandal deepens as employees held

Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries
Adeel Halim | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A corporate espionage scandal involving allegations of stolen documents from India's government deepened this weekend, following the arrests of employees at conglomerates controlled by four of the country's most prominent tycoons, including billionaire brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani.

The arrests mark the first time since the election last year of Narendra Modi as prime minister that police have launched an investigation targeting such high-profile industrial businesses, and are set to leave the companies and their wealthy owners facing lengthy and potentially damaging legal investigations.

The probe into alleged attempts to steal documents from India's oil ministry has also raised wider questions about the methods used to gain access to market-sensitive regulatory information in India — an issue that has long been a complaint of foreign investors seeking to navigate the country's complex bureaucracy.

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Two officials from Reliance Industries and Reliance Power, which are owned by Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani respectively, were brought before a court in New Delhi on Saturday following their arrests on Friday evening.

Three employees working for other energy sector businesses also appeared in court, including the Essar conglomerate, which is controlled by the wealthy Ruia family, and Cairn India, the oil exploration division of billionaire Anil Agarwal's London-listed Vedanta Resources.

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India's oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan promised a full investigation into the scandal, which emerged last week. This followed a police sting operation which led to the arrests of a series of middlemen on suspicion of illegally obtaining and then selling documents to the companies involved.

"Nobody is above [the] law. Nobody will be spared," Mr Pradhan told the Press Trust of India news agency this weekend. "This government will not permit anyone to breach the system or bend the rules."

Reshmi Khurana, head of India at security company Kroll, said the investigation was likely to attract extensive publicity given the high-profile businesses involved, all of whom have well-funded lobbying operations in New Delhi.

"These companies are names to reckon with," she said. "But this is a wider problem in the Indian system, when any sector with lots of regulation attracts layers of middlemen who you can deal with to get information, even if that means breaking rules."

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Foreign companies operating in heavily regulated industries such as power, telecoms and defense often complain in private that domestic operators gain an unfair advantage through their ability to access information about forthcoming government decisions.

"We always assumed that our competitors would know anything going on in the ministry the minute it happened, and long before it became public. It was like magic," said the head of one global business operating in India, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reliance Industries and Essar said they have launched internal investigations into the arrests of their employees. A spokesman for Reliance Power said it would "ensure full co-operation with the investigative agencies". Cairn India declined to comment.