Fuelling competition

Fuelling competition

Restrictions on fuel retailing should go and competition promoted among oil PSUs

Inspired by the recent liberalisation of rules in the airline industry, petroleum minister Dharmendra

Pradhan wants to make the oil industry also consumer-centric by promoting competition. Pradhan’s

moment of awakening has come not a day too early. The oil industry was one of the first

laboratories for experimenting with reform when refining and marketing was de-licensed and

products such as naphtha, aviation fuel and lubricants were decontrolled in the early 1990s. Yet,

after that, reform has largely bypassed the industry which has grown tremendously in terms of

refining capacity largely due to private investment. The marketing side, despite the entry of private

players such as Reliance Industries, Essar and Shell, continues to be dominated by the three public

sector majors — Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. And price-based

competition is totally absent with the three PSUs coordinating pricing action. The private players are

not complaining as the prices set by the PSUs afford them a good margin in the present low oil price


This cosy state of affairs in fuel marketing needs to change and the Centre appears to be in the

mood for it, going by Pradhan’s remarks. The minister said recently that the conditions governing

investment by prospective retailers need to be re-visited to promote competition and ensure that

consumers get the best prices. Presently, entry into the fuel retailing business is allowed only to

those who invest a minimum of ₹2,000 crore in the hydrocarbons industry, whether in exploration

and production, refining, pipelines or in liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. The original logic

behind this regulation was that only those with skin in the oil game should be allowed to benefit

from a presence in the lucrative retailing business. The country was short of refining capacity in the

1990s when this regulation was brought in. The scenario has changed now and it’s time that this rule

is thrown out.

That said, it is unlikely that relaxing the rule will open the floodgates to investment or that the big oil

companies will make a beeline for India. Setting up retail outlets is not cheap anymore given the

soaring land prices. And the multinationals are in subsistence mode now with investments cut back

drastically due to soft crude prices. Also, the PSU oil companies will be no mean competitors in the

retailing business. Pradhan is right when he says that consumers should benefit from lower prices

through competition. A good start will be to encourage competition among the PSU oil companies

by allowing them to set their individual prices. It is time for transparency in fuel pricing.


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