Govt breaks oil strike with sack stick

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  • Published 9.01.09

New Delhi, Jan. 9: Petrol stations are expected to return to normal by Monday after an unusually tough Centre forced oil executives to end their strike this evening, cowing them with arrests, sackings and threats of mass dismissal.

The Centre and state governments used the Essential Supplies Maintenance Act (Esma) to pick up 200 executives who, lacking lower-grade staff’s stomach for street politics, buckled under pressure and recanted in writing.

Delhi then announced that all the 45,000 agitating officials would be arrested by tomorrow and later sacked. This last announcement forced the leadership, in hiding through the three-day strike for fear of arrest, to capitulate.

Earlier, the government had got ONGC to dismiss 64 officials, and Indian Oil and GAIL to sack three each. The army had marched into refineries and jet-fuel pumping stations, further intimidating the oil executives.

Strike-friendly Bengal was among states that did not arrest a single striking official. However, states that house most of the refineries and pumping depots — such as Haryana, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Goa — invoked Esma and launched a crackdown.

Work is expected to start at refineries and pumping stations by tonight. Petroleum ministry officials said normality would be restored by Monday.

However, PTI quoted petroleum minister Murli Deora as saying: “Everything will be normal by tomorrow.”

The strike has dried petrol pumps across the country and hit industry and airline schedules, and was declared illegal by Delhi High Court.

Home minister P. Chidambaram, heading a group of ministers, had early in the day indicated the Centre’s willingness to be tough, saying there would be no talks unless the strike was called off.

The breakthrough came when the government arrested two office-bearers of the Oil Sector Officers Association (OSOA): ONGC deputy general manager Somesh Ranjan and chief engineer Naresh Goyal. They were brought to Parliament Street police station and pressured into changing their stance.

Granting them conditional bail, the magistrate said the duo “shall communicate with other employees of their offices by way of email and request and motivate them not to take part in any such strike”.

Petroleum secretary R.S. Pandey then issued a warning: “Join work immediately or face arrest under Esma or the NSA (National Security Act).”

OSOA president Amit Kumar claimed the agitation had been suspended after the government “gave assurances it would reinstate the dismissed and suspended executives and release all those arrested under Esma”.

Pandey, however, told PTI: “It is for the companies to decide. We have no role in this.”

Kumar, an ONGC electronics engineer, also claimed the government had promised “to come out with a report on our grievances in 30 days”.