Government may call in army to tackle oil strike (Second Lead)

January 9th, 2009 - 3:51 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew Delhi, Jan 9 (IANS) Taking a tough stance against the striking officers of public sector oil companies, the government Friday said the army could be called in to tackle the crisis and said talks were possible but the initiative had to be taken by the strikers. In some places, the army will start loading and unloading fuel later Friday afternoon. “I can’t go into the details but if someone from the army has to be called they will be called,” Chidambaram said.

Addressing reporters after the cabinet meeting headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram said he was willing to meet the striking officers “even today but they must come to meet me”.

As panic mounted all over the country with serpentine queues outside petrol pumps running dry and essential services in danger of being impacted after the Oil Sector Officers’ Association started an indefinite strike Wednesday in support of their salary hike demand, the minister said: “Strong action would be taken and I believe strong actions are being taken.”

“Steps have been taken - HPCL (Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd) is functioning normally, BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd) will also run normally. The problem lies with IOC (Indian Oil Corp), ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp) and GAIL (Gas Authority of India Ltd),” he said.

“If diesel is not available how will cars run? If gas is not available how will fertiliser and power plants run?” he asked and said that a “strike that cripples is not the way”.

The army’s help will be taken to transport fuel, said Petroleum Secretary R.S. Pandey. “In some areas the army will be deployed by this (Friday) afternoon. They will be used for loading and unloading the products.

“The stocks are there but the problem is with the transportation, where the army will bail us out,” Pandey said.

Earlier in the day, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora said the situation was “worsening every hour” and the Territorial Army was likely to step in to end the strike.

Local magistrates would also be asked to force the strikers to return to work.

“Everybody was united in the cabinet that we should go and tell the people about the losses due to the strike and that they should withdraw the agitation. The cabinet directed us to ensure the strike is withdrawn and that people do not suffer,” Deora said.

“Attendance in BPCL has increased 40 percent but the only cause of worry is the Hazira refinery, which is not working,” Pandey said.

“They (strikers) are being very unreasonable, they can’t hold the country to ransom,” he added.

The gas situation in western region has been affected considerably, Pandey said, adding that several power plants have had to shut down as there was no fuel supply.

CNG supply in Mumbai would also be restored fully, he asserted.

The Oil Sector Officers Association, an umbrella organisation of 45,000 employees, are demanding higher wages in 14 public sector undertakings.

Late night negotiations Thursday between the government and striking officers collapsed with neither side willing to budge from their stance.

Meanwhile, reports from the states said petrol pumps across cities were going dry. The Federation of All India Petroleum Traders Friday said petrol stock in the national capital will be over by evening.

According to it, 60-70 percent of petrol pumps have already gone dry on account of the strike.

In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, fuel-starved autorickshaws, taxis, schoolbuses and private vehicles remained off the roads Friday morning, putting millions of residents to hardship.

Although the bus service BEST managed to keep its fleet running, chaos prevailed as the buses were jampacked, forcing many people to walk down to the nearest railway station.

In Kerala, petroleum traders said close to 80 percent of the nearly 2,000 petrol pumps in the state are dry. According to the Kerala State Federation of Petroleum Traders, the limited fuel still available at a few petrol pumps would be over by Friday.

Most petrol pumps in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and in major cities of Uttar Pradesh like Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Agra have also gone dry.

Madhya Pradesh, too woke up Friday to panic buying of the fuel. Of the 3,200 petrol pumps in the state, about 2,000 have already run dry.

Maintaining that the remaining pumps in Madhya Pradesh could go dry by Saturday, a petrol pump owner said oil depots have not opened since Wednesday. “There has been no supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas during these two days. The situation in some pumps and gas agencies where there was stock is normal but their stock would not last long,” he added.

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