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Why VK Sibal is in the news

By Jyoti Mukul
October 16, 2009 14:22 IST

V K SibalIn November 2004, when Vinod Kumar Sibal took over as director general of Hydrocarbons, he welcomed the media in his Rajiv Chowk office, promising regular press conferences to provide updates on oil and gas exploration in India.

He kept to that promise in the first press conference, providing a tabular analysis of the wells dug by each of the exploration companies and answered questions freely.

It was clear that Sibal was looking to provide more transparency for an institution that was hitherto prone to secrecy. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not take much time for his media-friendliness to wear off.

Soon, he was involved in a bitter public argument with Subir Raha, then the feisty chairman of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation over, first, Sibal's appointment on ONGC's board and, then, differences over gas finds.

The media coverage at the time was not necessarily Sibal-friendly.

Five years on, Sibal's angst appears to have extended beyond the media to pretty much anyone who questions him —  a fact that he is not reticent about highlighting.

His term ends on October 31, but chances of an extension look bleak because of the controversy surrounding him over his alleged partiality to Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries, which is developing gas fields in the Krishna Godavari  basin off the Andhra coast.

A few weeks ago, a Delhi newspaper front-paged allegations that Sibal's daughters had lived in RIL guest houses during the 2005 Mumbai floods and that he owned a property worth Rs 3 crore (Rs 30 million) in the city.

The report suggested that these facts were somehow linked to the DGH approving higher capital costs for developing gas fields in the K-G basin, a move that impacted government revenues.

Sibal insists his daughters paid rent and utility charges and neither he nor his family own any property in Mumbai. In any case, he adds with characteristic irony, the 'favour' would have been too small to warrant such a big concession by the DGH.

His current theory is that Anil Ambani, who is pitted against his brother Mukesh in a high-profile battle over gas supplies from the K-G basin, is behind the DGH's problems.

Just this week, for instance, he and his team concluded the eighth round of bids under the New Exploration and Licensing Policy and the fourth round of bids for coal bed methane blocks. If this was the last round of bidding under Sibal, it was certainly not a feather in his cap. Half the blocks on offer received no response.

Even RIL did not put in a single bid. The official explanation for the poor response is the global slowdown. Sibal's own diagnosis is that the fight between the two Ambani brothers kept international oil giants away.

Otherwise, Sibal says, NELP has been a success story from the sixth round onwards -- that is to say when he took over -- and DGH as an organisation has been strengthened with the country coming to the forefront of the global exploration map.

Though it was his predecessor Avinash Chandra who saw through the first NELP round and could be credited with foreseeing the potential of the finds in Rajasthan and Krishna-Godvari, the biggest since Bombay High, it was Sibal who introduced the culture of faster approvals and aggressive planning of road shows to the domestic exploration programme.

The palpable changes in organisational systems at his current office in Noida partly vindicates his case, though it is also true that most of the world's largest oil and gas companies have stayed away from India.

Whatever the controversies surrounding him, Sibal, a masters in Physics from Punjab University, is more than qualified to steer India's E&P policy.

He has 35 years of exploration experience behind him though he started as a service engineer in an Ambala-based biomedical equipment company in 1974. A year later he moved to ONGC where he worked for about two years. A major part of his career was spent in Oil India Ltd where he rose to become director in charge of human resources.

It would have been natural for his children to follow him in a field in which he wields so much influence but his two daughters chose very different careers -- one is in the hospitality business and the other is an actuary. "I could have managed jobs for them in some company but I did not do so," he says with typical frankness.

With more than two years left for him to reach retirement age, Sibal could have easily managed an extension had it not been for the RIL-linked allegations.

It is also true that the high stakes in the oil and gas business in an energy-starved country like India tend to keep sectoral regulators on a slippery ground. And as another bureaucrat admitted, "Any appointment to the position of authority depends on your links; in ministries like power and petroleum appointments right from director-level depends on the minister."

On that score Sibal shouldn't have a problem since he is related to Kapil Sibal, minister of human resource development -- also the locus of controversy over remuneration for IIT and IIM faculty -- and he has other close family links in the bureaucracy. Sibal, though, is philosophical about his future, saying he wants to put to use his presentation capabilities in other fields even if they are not connected to the oil business.

There is, however, one thing of which he can be certain as he demits office: his name will certainly find mention whenever someone sits down to write about the most intensely-fought battle in Indian corporate history.

Image: V K Sibal

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Jyoti Mukul
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