Book Excerpts

Unfilled Barrels: India’s Oil Story

Updated on: Mar 28, 2022

In this extract from the book that traces the country’s exciting oil journey , the author brings to the fore the corporate rivalries in the sector

Corporate war exists, but if you ask anyone to speak about it, you won’t get an answer. The undercurrents were and still are very strong. At times, there has been an extreme disconnect between the MoPNG (Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas) and its upstream technical arm, DGH (Directorate General of Hydrocarbons) . The rivalry between the Ambani brothers also took a dirty turn when the Anil Ambani group brought out full-page newspaper advertisements that raised questions on various issues, including the ethics of the ministry and one minister in particular. I recollect one such incident when the attack was directed against the minister, who was so pained by it that he said, ‘They are like my children, but see what has happened. I treated his wife like my daughter.’

Did anyone listen to the minister? Not really. The attacks continued until the brothers found their own solutions with their mother’s help. This minister was just a case in point. A DG of DGH had a rather unceremonious exit because of corporate rivalries. The situation was so bad that even his family was not spared. There have always been corporate wars, and they continue even today! The degree and intensity of wars may vary according to the time and issue, said an official who was in the ministry, when India’s oil sector saw all the names float around.

Where it all started

As far as the oil and gas sector (particularly the upstream sector in India) is concerned, the genesis of the conflict was when the Government of India decided to offer ONGC and OIL the discovered fields (PMT, Ravva and the like).

ONGC had complained all along that certain fields it found (Panna-Mukta and Ravva fields were partially developed and had started production) were snatched away by the government without adequate compensation. Subsequently, there was an adverse CAG report in 1995–1996, followed by complaints (widely believed to have been triggered by a company which lost out in competitive bidding), recounted an officer. The officer added that this led to an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court to challenge the award of the Panna-Mukta fields.

The Delhi High Court judgement was challenged in the Supreme Court. This was perceived to be part of corporate rivalry. Later, the award of the Ratna R-series fields (a producing field of ONGC) became controversial. I was told this was instigated by some competing corporates, which was fought by the awardee Essar.

Eventually, after a lapse of almost two decades (the Ratna field contract was awarded in 1996), the field was returned to ONGC! Then, the dispute between the famous Ambani siblings —RIL and RNRL— divided government functionaries into two camps (this can easily be substantiated from government records). The government then became an intervener in the courts. Some people in the industry and the government believed that the domestic gas sector and its pricing was politicised as a result.

When the Cairn India IPO was to be launched, there was a sense of corporate war in the air. Again, everyone knew, but no one would talk about it. During the last leg of the IPO process, there was a sudden spread of negative news about Cairn. The rumour within the company was that a big rival company was behind the news. What was more worrying for Cairn was that some investors who had initially agreed to be partners, seemed to have backed out. The last week of the process was tense, and Rahul Dhir, who headed Cairn India then, had to step up to make last-minute calls to make sure that the IPO was a success. At that time, it was thought that somebody very powerful was behind it. However, no names were taken in public. The promoter, Cairn Energy PLC, did not take any measures to counter the controversies. They took it in their stride and did not behave like a rival Indian company and lodge complaints. They decided to see the negative news as a rumour and just focus on what needed to be done at that time because they had to ease the worry of international investors.

Both Rahul and PLC had exposure to that world. The first real hint of what you could call a corporate war, or corporate rivalry, was evident during the last leg of the IPO process, recounted a former member of Cairn’s top team. The last day of the IPO closing was also challenging. ‘Our PR agency too felt a powerful hand behind all this. As far as the media is concerned, they helped us reach out to senior editors across different publications. Rahul personally met a few people in the media to explain the facts,’ the executive shared. Executing the pipeline projects was a different experience. There were two things. The pipeline was 650 km in range and involved some 45,000 landowners. The entire stretch was handled extremely well.

Dealing with so many landowners was a separate lesson for the company and required a good amount of engagement by the team. ‘But when it came to Gujarat, we needed to take the end section of the pipeline to Bhoghat, the terminal. We always thought laying a pipeline in Gujarat will be easy as it is a very investor-friendly state, recounted the official. Corporate rivalry at the local level, however, instigated trouble for Cairn in Gujarat. Interestingly, in this sector, everyone knows everything but pretends not to know anything about corporate supremacy.

Whenever a new player— however mighty—entered the industry, the rumour was that one particular corporate house created hurdles. At one time, key corporate houses in the sector were all fighting it out. The situation was bound to have implications on the officials in the ministry.

(Richa Mishra is Bureau Chief, Hyderabad and Kolkata of The Hindu BusinessLine and has been covering the oil trail since the late nineties)

About the book

Unfilled Barrels: India’s Oil Story

Richa Mishra

Bloomsbury India

Rs 580 ; 207 pages

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on March 28, 2022

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