Long lines at petrol pumps; theories of widespread top-level sympathy for middle-level strikers; calls for army involvement. These are not the images that India needs to be sending out to the world; these are not the images that India needs to build up of itself. That some of the worlds great cities actually faced the prospect of being shut down,completely paralysed,because of a few thousand government salaries is more than shocking: it is ridiculous. The oil strike may have eased just short of a major crisis,but the questions remain.
Let us not waste sympathy on those who were striking for more pay and were willing to bring all of urban India to a halt over it. These are not individuals struggling
under exploitative conditions; they are middle-management with job security. According to a Hewitt
Associates benchmarking study commissioned by the oil majors themselves,middle-management receives an average fixed pay of
Rs 9.44 lakh; the market median is Rs10.11 lakh. When the benefits of having the state as an employer are factored in,the concerns being
expressed by the Oil Sector Officers Association become even less worthy of consideration by an
administration faced with genuine,complex crises. The government needs to keep standing firm: now that oil prices are low again,every interest group wants its pound of flesh and the government cant afford to give in to even one.
Yet the government should have been prepared for this. Alternative methods for keeping the oil flowing should have been ready to go,if talks failed as they were
expected to. And we must not lose sight of the central reason why this arrogant blackmailing of the state is possible: the lack of private petroleum retailers to take up the slack. This too is governments fault.
Under the NDA,private retailers were for years,following April 2002,forbidden to poach outlets from state-owned companies. The UPA kept this going,keeping private retailing networks out of metropolitan India. An entire set of constraints meant that dealer networks had to be built up from scratch. We see the results before us. Just a strike on the state-owned airline can no longer keep the nation grounded because there are now choices; it should be the case that strikes in state-owned oil companies shouldnt keep the nation at home. That it still is the case is just another way in which the governments reflexive protection of its commercial empire has hurt those it should be helping. It shouldnt be allowed to happen again.