When the All Assam Students Union called for a 120-hour oil blockade a few months ago to demand the recruitment of 300 unskilled workers in Oil India Ltd (oil), the management went into a tizzy. A five-day stoppage of work would result in colossal losses to the company. But the agitators were in no mood to relent. The oil management pointed out it had decided to recruit workers but a finance ministry ban on fresh recruitment has prevented them from going ahead. Ultimately, after 24 hours of intense negotiations, the students agreed to postpone their agitation.
That is a typical tale that can be heard at the Duliajan HQ of oil. Agitations, dharnas and demands for financial help have all become part of the management's daily chores, often distracting it from its primary task, that of exploring for and extracting oil.
Take a typical day in the life of Prasant Borkakoti, senior manager (PF) at the oil headquarters. He's come into office at 7 am. By 11, he is faced with a string of problems: (a) The local wing of a students' organisation is having its annual conference at Guwahati. Its rather belligerent general secretary has come in to enquire what happened to its demand for a "grant" running into lakhs of rupees. (b) A college in Moran wants to build a new wing to house the science department. Its principal has sent a representative to push for donations. (c) The Sahitya Sabha, a mass-based organisation, is having its annual conference where at least one lakh people congregate for three days. The sabha wants oil to provide a heavy-duty stand-by generator and also contribute in other ways to make the meet "successful."
Borkakoti has been fielding such demands every day for the last five years and the pressure, in his own words, is only increasing by the day.
So what is oil? A major prospecting company or a mini welfare state? Spend a day or two at the oil HQ and one begins to realise the extent to which the people, government and various organisations expect oil to foot their bill for non-oil-related activities.
Take roads. In the past decade, oil spent over Rs 13 crore on the improvement, repair and building of roads mainly in the twin districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. Of this, Rs 4.22 crore was spent in the last three years alone. This, when roads are supposed to be built and maintained by the state pwd. According to one estimate, oil has built 400 medium and small bridges in upper Assam. Admittedly, to access its drilling sites—mostly located in remote areas—oil has to build and maintain roads. So it is not surprising to note that for many people, the sarkar is Oil India and not the state government.
Says group general manager and resident chief executive P.C. Goswami: "As a responsible psu, we are aware we have to help the community around our installations and we will fulfill that obligation to the best of our abilities. But the expectations from every section of society are scary. To expect us to run a parallel welfare-oriented administration is rather too much."
OIL's benevolence is now taken for granted. Says a top official: "Despite our best efforts to provide maximum assistance to the community around us, oil has been facing rising obstacles in the form of bandhs, road blockades and demonstrations at the slightest pretext. This affects our productivity." Between April 1999 to March 2000, Oil India could not produce 18,453 tonnes of crude oil owing to assorted bandhs and blockades carried out by various organisations.This meant a loss of over Rs 10 crore.
Buying peace by carrying out functions of the state administration has its downside. Says an oil staffer: "By continuing to give out dole, we are no doubt buying peace on a short-term basis but in the long run, the aspirations and expectations from Oil India has only increased and will continue to rise. That's dangerous."
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