Vantage point

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Please Make it Count!

The Telegraph reports

The Oil Sector Officers’ Association threatened to go on an indefinite nation-wide strike from Thursday if the new oil marketing discipline guidelines are not withdrawn and those behind IOC executive B.S. Manjunathan’s murder arrested by then.

OSOA president Ashok Singh said the government has been asked to “scrap immediately” the 2005 guidelines which place the entire responsibility of controlling adulteration on sales officers of oil companies.

The marketing directors of Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum submitted a memorandum to the petroleum ministry today seeking changes in the guidelines.

Singh said it was not possible for an oil company sales officer to carry out the responsibility the new guidelines had thrust on him as he had to supervise over 50 retail outlets stretching over a 300-sq-km area. He said oil companies would have to be backed by state governments if adulteration had to be effectively checked.

I fully understand and sympathise with the Oil Sector Officers' Association. Such lopsided guidelines do seem to put an inordinately large responsibility for checking adulteration on sales officers. And yes, if the responsibility is spread out, life would be less dangerous.

But by making this the thrust of the protest, I think the OSOA is devaluing Manju's death somewhat. Manju did not die because he was the sole person responsible for checking, and neither could his death have been necessarily avoided had the responsibility been shared by others. He died because, as a colleague of his says, "he took a government directive too seriously".

That means he did his job the way he was supposed to do it.

Did he HAVE to do it BECAUSE it was his sole responsibility? Nope. Remember, he was in a PSU. He was an employee of the Government of India. His job was protected. He could just chill out at home, and still, his boss could at best transfer him. He could easily have accepted bribes, built a nice bungalow in Bangalore, and then maybe gotten a cushier posting. At the very least, if goofing off on his job or accepting bribes went against some moderate-level-principles, he could have just changed jobs. The economy is booming, and an IIM grad with 2.5 years of sales experience would have been lapped up before he could have finished typing his resignation letter.

But Manju clearly wasn't just a person who stopped at moderate-level-principles. He cared about the highest level of principles. What his father says makes it amply clear that Manju put a high premium on his integrity. He did not want the easier way out.

To use his death to ask for a collective easy way out, to me, seems like demeaning his death.

Manju had spoken to us about his wish that the process of allotment of petrol pumps be made similar to the way distribution channels are set up in other businesses. In other businesses, companies draw up guidelines, ask for applications, have a thorough review and then allot dealership or distributorship. In addition, there are periodic checks, which the channel partners strive to pass.

Why are things different in the oil industry as compared to other industries? Why haven't we heard of an HLL, Cadbury, TATA Motors, or even IBM channel sales manager threatened for carrying out inspection? I was in IBM sales, and a large part of my job had to do with managing channel partners. ALl of them had to sign elaborate contracts and agree to several standards to become IBM channel partners. After that they had to ensure quality, integrity and probity in their business. And ensuring that wasn't very difficult. Because my channel partners had no criminal record. They were hardworking honest people who had earned the right to be channel partners.

We all know about politicians and ministers having criminal records. Some enterprising journo should find out this stat for petrol pump dealers. Petrol dealerships aren't earned like the dealerships for HLL, Cadbury, Tata Motors or IBM. They are "alloted" like political capital. And once measurable parameters go out of the window for the selection process and are replaced by political influence, is it surprising that many shady characters get the allotments?

Errant channel partners who indulge in adultery, fudging of records, margin tampering, etc, are an exception in all other businesses. But they are the norm in the oil business. It has nothing to do with the guidelines that OSOA obejcts to. It is to do with the fact that the process of allotment itself starts with so much underhanded skullduggery. Is it surprising then that the skulldugegry continues and grows?

I hope someone from OSOA reads this and makes the demand for a complete overhaul of the system for alloting petrol pump licenses, making it more transparent and parametric.

IOCL is supposed to be one of the "navratnas". A "ratna" is supposed to have no imperfections, no blots. Manju's murder is a blot on IOCL which has its origins in certain archaic systems of the Petroleum Ministry. If IOCL is to be truly considered a "ratna" it should embrace standards of professionalism in every aspect of its business.