Parliament panel flags possibility of 'benami' petrol pumps operating in country, calls for probe

A parliamentary panel has flagged the possibility of individuals operating petrol pumps in the name of SC and ST applicants due to certain changes made in the allocation guidelines

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Representative image
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PTI

A parliamentary panel has flagged the possibility of individuals operating petrol pumps in the name of SC and ST applicants due to certain changes made in the allocation guidelines and has asked the Centre to direct oil marketing companies to conduct regular "surprise inspections" to check such "benami operations".

In its report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, the panel raised questions over the changes made in the guidelines post 2014 and came down heavily on the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas for giving its approval.

The panel noted that the ministry had itself reduced its stature to that of "a mere rubber stamp" by giving "full autonomy" to public sector oil marketing companies (OMCs) in the matter.

During the inspection, the committee recommended, the proof of ownership, caste certificate and office accounts/ledgers bearing signature, payment details in account and the owners' name be examined "impromptu" with mandatory presence of the owners to establish authenticity of their ownership.

"The committee further recommends that the government should undertake this exercise within three months of the presentation of this report in both the Houses of Parliament and should also apprise the committee of the progress made in this regard," it added.

The panel said it was of "unanimous opinion" that revamping of the retail outlet/dealership guidelines for petrol pumps and gas agencies post 2014, which put the onus of finding suitable land on the applicants belonging to Scheduled Caste (SCs) and Scheduled Tribe (STs) applicants, have proven to be "an inflection point" with respect to their interests.

"The committee is flabbergasted to note that the ministry in its written replies has been quite evasive regarding how the current guidelines were formulated and its approval process," the panel said.

"Even the top officials while rendering evidence before the committee were clueless and incoherent in their submission," the committee noted in its report, adding, "No clarity has been offered about whether the policy was ratified at the Board/Ministerial level".

The committee noted that inclusion of such a clause was an "open opportunity" to deprive poor SC/ST individuals, who have a combined stake of 22.5 per cent in the ownership of petrol pumps, from benefits.

"The committee are of concerted opinion that the rising number of SC/ST dealership being registered in the name of SC/ST dealership/ownership is a blatant manifestation of the same wherein the petrol pumps are registered in the name of SC/ST only in paper but are being run by others who provide land to these SC/ST applicants to gain dealership and in lieu pay a meagre amount to these gullible SC/ST people," it added.

The committee felt that the ministry and the OMCs were "in cahoots" in the matter and did not want to put in "sincere efforts" in scouting suitable lands to set up petrol pumps and gas agencies.

"The committee would like to categorically point out that being pioneering OMCs of India, BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited), HPCL (Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited) and IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation Limited) should not shirk away from the responsibility of identifying and acquiring land for setting up of petrol pumps for the allottees belonging to SC/ST communities," it added.

The panel underlined that the current guidelines "clearly" favoured OMCs whereby they were "absolved" from hunting suitable locations for inception of petrol pumps and gas agencies.

"This is the precise reason why the ministry in its reply has deemed reverting back to the previous policy which clearly favoured Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes candidates as a 'retrograde' step," it said.

The committee is unable to "comprehend" why the ministry is "dithering with regard to restoration of the old policy", it added.

Demanding that the Centre safeguard the interest of SCs/STs "with utmost sincerity and responsibility", the panel recommend that the guidelines for the selection of dealerships and distributorships of petroleum products as well as major policy issues framed and implemented by the OMCs should "firstly be vetted and approved by the ministry" before their implementation.

"The committee would like to impress that before the guidelines/policy are prepared and approved by the Board of the OMCs/ministry, such a vital issue should also be duly referred to the parliamentary committee before the same are implemented by the OMCs," it added.

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