The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cloud on Naik trip

New Delhi, May 23: Globe-trotting petroleum minister Ram Naik has been grounded — at least temporarily.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has sprung a surprise by nixing Naik’s trip to Colombo, sources said.

For Naik — whose visit to Colombo on May 28 to inaugurate a modern Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) retail filling station has been fairly widely publicised — the move comes as a major embarrassment.

With the proposal being sent back to the Prime Minister for a review, the sources pointed out that Naik was hopeful of getting the decision reversed. Petroleum ministry officials are reportedly keeping their fingers crossed until Monday.

IOC’s foray into the Sri Lankan retail market is part of India’s economic diplomacy. At present, the petrol pumps in Colombo are “mere sheds” and IOC plans to raze them and build state-of-the-art petrol pumps. Naik’s visit to inaugurate the first such petrol filling station was expected to give a fillip to Indo-Lankan economic ties.

Naik had visited Teheran earlier this month as the head of an Indian delegation to hold talks with his Iranian counterpart to promote cooperation in the hydrocarbons sector. The trip to Sri Lanka would have been Naik’s second foreign visit within a month.

Vajpayee has issued austerity instructions to his ministers to curtail foreign jaunts as far as possible. Since Colombo is a neighbouring country, the cost of the visit is not comparable to going to a western country.

Senior officials point out that the oil sector is the biggest business in the country with blue-chip oil companies such as the ONGC and the IOC dwarfing private firms. Since these companies are government-owned and oil is an international business, it is only natural that the minister would have a heavier schedule of foreign visits than most of his colleagues.

Naik also has plans to visit London, Houston, Calgary and Perth next month for roadshows to hardsell the oil blocks that are now being offered for exploration through the international bidding route.

The objective of this globe-trotting exercise is to attract global oil majors with the latest technical expertise to join the country’s oil hunt.

At the moment, only smaller foreign companies such as Cairn Energy, Hardy Oil and Premier Oil, all of the UK, and Niko Resources of Canada have undertaken oil exploration in India. However, the earlier two roadshows held in the these major oil centres of the world had not succeeded in attracting any of the major companies.

This time around, Naik is more optimistic as nine discoveries of oil and gas have been made in the country in the last three years. But the million-dollar question is whether these discoveries are being considered big enough by the standards of oil majors like Exxon-Mobil, BP and TotalfinaElf to attract them to India.

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