Burning issue

| Updated on: Jan 28, 2011

The solution to the problem of criminal elements indulging in pilferage and adulteration of petroleum products is to do away with the present subsidies on kerosene.

Yet another adulteration scam, yet another precious life lost enforcing the law and yet again, the exasperating sight of politicians and officials skirting around the main issue that caused the scam in the first place. Will we ever learn? The brutal murder of Mr Yashwant Sonawane, Additional District Collector, Malegaon, while trying to prevent pilferage of kerosene, is identical to the killing, five years ago, of another honest oil company official, Mr Shanmugam Manjunath, for exposing the adulteration of motor fuels. The murder of Mr Manjunath caused outrage then, just as Mr Sonawane's killing has now, but no lessons were learnt thereafter; in fact, the incentive for anti-social elements to indulge in pilferage and adulteration of petroleum products has, if anything, become greater today. And the reason is not lax enforcement or absence of the ‘marker' system for fuels — they are just additional causes — but flawed policies on pricing and subsidy of petroleum products. When you have diesel selling at Rs 42.06 (in Mumbai) per litre and kerosene, a product with similar characteristics that qualify it as a good adulterant, at Rs 12.27 a litre, there is obviously great incentive for anti-social elements to pilfer kerosene for adulteration with diesel. That motor fuels are freely adulterated with cheaper, subsidised kerosene all over the country is an open secret; yet, the government continues to look the other way.

The Petroleum Minister, Mr Jaipal Reddy, has ordered oil companies to revive the ‘marker' system and urged greater use of technology in tracking fuel consignments. The fact, though, is that oil companies are already using GPS technology to track trucks that carry petrol, diesel and aviation fuel where it is their responsibility to reach the products to the retail outlets. In the case of kerosene, though, it is the responsibility of the respective State government appointed contractors to take delivery at the oil depots for onward transport to PDS outlets. So, there is little that the oil companies can do to prevent pilferage of kerosene once they are loaded on to the tankers. ‘Markers' are expensive chemicals that can, at best, prove adulteration but they cannot actually prevent it.

So the best, and probably the only, solution to the problem is to do away with the present method of subsidising kerosene. There are more efficient ways of reaching subsidy to the poor. A couple of committees appointed by the government in the recent past have suggested a smart card system to ensure that subsidy on kerosene reaches the target population. Another suggestion is to deliver the subsidy in cash or to deposit it in the bank accounts of those it is aimed at. The government should seriously consider implementing these suggestions that will also help it reduce the soaring subsidy bill, stop adulteration of fuels and, importantly, prevent senseless murders such as that of Mr Sonawane and Mr Manjunath.

Published on February 08, 2011

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