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Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
Half-baked journalist, myopic observer, pseudo rebel, phony philosopher, wanna-be: adventurer, writer, singer, movie-star.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Bemusedly yours: The government's fuel policy.

My sunday mornings are perhaps no different than those of fellow men who toil the week away to put bread on the table. One woke up to the weak sunshine kissing the bedroom window, took a nice hot bath and stepped out on to the green patch that our middle class family insists on calling 'the front-lawn'. An English breakfast, minus the bacon, followed as one chatted with the family, reprimanded the spoilt-rotten family dog to behave and with a burp, and a sigh gathered the newspapers up together as a prelude to poring leisurely over them. One felt blessed to have weathered the hard and cold recent past to be able to feel the sunshine on one's face again as the stereo belted out a favourite John Denver number. 

Skimming the headlines, one simply shrugged off the news of another increase in petrol prices but what caught the eye, reading further down, was a comment in 'The Hindustan Times', credited to an unnamed senior official of the Petroleum Ministry, justifying the latest hike in the petrol prices on grounds of petrol being a rich man's fuel. Any other day and the comment would have had me in splits as recent comments from all the four pillars of our fast sinking democracy are wont to do but for being a tad too cruel and cutting too close home for comfort.

Now, I may only be a myopic observer of how things are but am yet to be blamed for being blind and only someone as blind as a bat would miss the government's incoherent fuel policy for a policy grounded in realities. The decision to hike petrol prices simply seems a knee-jerk reaction to an increase in international crude prices and, perhaps more so, an attempt to deflect attention from the flak that the government has been receiving of late on numerous fronts ranging from the Adarsh scam to the garage sale of spectrum to a favoured few to failure to control prices of the daily essentials.

Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Every increase in petrol prices makes the case for owning a diesel vehicle that much stronger from the customers' point of view. To illustrate, earlier, a diesel vehicle, for personal use, was recommended only if one drove well in excess of thirty thousand kilometres a year. Sundry automobile experts can now be seen on our venerable news channels spouting forth on the merits of owning a diesel vehicle if one drives just north of ten thousand kilometres a year. The result is customers lapping up diesel vehicles and manufacturers, ever quick to latch on to customer preferences, bringing in newer diesels models and converting models that till now did well with petrol engines to diesel. Most SUVs, MUVs, lifestyle vehicles continue to sport diesel engines, right alongside fancy cars with fancier labels and large engines with capacity and power ratings reading as if they could very well power a small military aircraft! Generator sets in most homes, including those powering air-conditioners and more at Sainik Farms, Golf Links, Lutyen's Delhi, guzzle diesel by litres per minute. Poor Jairam Ramesh!

The subsidy on diesel is far greater than one on petrol and with a fuel policy skewed in favour of diesel and encouraging it's use, even if inadvertently, one ought to be pardoned for wondering if the government isn't simply adding to the ballooning subsidy bill? Let me not even get started on the domestic LPG cylinders lying around as so much loose change at my neighbourhood Halwai. There is also the small matter of families like my own not having picked up their quota of subsidised kerosene from the ration shop in years and yet the subsidy bill on kerosene keeps increasing year after year despite the government's yearly protestations of actually having brought down the number of the poverty stricken in the country. Either the number of the poverty stricken have creatively been accounted for or the subsidy on kerosene meant for the disadvantaged is lining the pockets of those not-so-disadvantaged. I would wager my last rupee that some part of the subsidy on kerosene is, unknown to us of course, fueling our petrol driven vehicles given how well kerosene and petrol mix together.

Given the facts above and I shall understand if you label them mere conjectures since my meagre income allows no scope for either an SUV or a farm house, I should be forgiven for asking the powers-that-be at the Petroleum Ministry and the Union Cabinet how in heaven's name did they, in their infinite wisdom, deduce petrol to be a rich man's fuel?
I drive an eight year old Zen that offers me a generous fuel efficiency of about twelve kilometres to a litre of petrol and the heart skips a beat every time there is a fuel hike since circumstances particular to me prevent me from using public transport. Still, I'd gladly pay full market price for the petrol I use in my car and the gas I use in my kitchen. Paying full price will no doubt cause me great discomfort but the satisfaction - the same satisfaction that one knows when turning down sundry not-for-profit organisations, falling over themselves, offering to write out a tax deduction certificate in multiples of the amount donated - of knowing that the subsidies are being targeted to the truly deserving will be much greater.

Much has been written about cash transfers in lieu of subsidies and they have been a resounding success in some parts of the world, especially Latin America. There is perhaps no better time than now for the government to target subsidies to the truly deserving as cash transfers. Question is whether it is inclined to do so and can do so given how much of the subsidy lands as leakage with the middlemen in the chain - politicians, bureaucrats and god knows who else. May be, we Indians, known as we are for our Jugaad, will find a way to corrupt any new system. Harsh words perhaps but well intentioned.

As for the unnamed official at the Petroleum Ministry, he perhaps missed noticing the fancy cars and the SUVs the representatives of the great toiling masses alight from to enter that hallowed portal of our young democracy - The Parliament House.

Now, that's what I call 'blind as a bat'.


  1. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post