( This piece was written based on my first-hand experience of working for an oil company for the Indian Express after the brutal murder of an IIM graduate, Manjunath Shanmughan in 2005. Years later, Yashwant Sonawane is burnt to death in Nashik in similar circumstances; so what has really changed) ?

By Sanjay Jha

I suffered from an acute childhood obsession, almost a quirky fetish; the love for petrol smell. It sent me into  a delirious zone , as it had a macho aroma about it and my nostrils invariably sniffed out the closest fuel dispensing outlet.  Small wonder then that my first career job was at a leading petroleum behemoth, and for a man for whom the scent of petroleum products  was preferable to the fragrance of  Denim ( the most sought after cologne in those days) the assignment  held unlimited potential for experiencing spiritual ecstasy while at work. . Or so I believed.

Twenty-one years later, as a professional young IIM talent and IOC executive lay brutally slaughtered by the oil mafia in the conundrum of crime, Uttar Pradesh , I almost lived a vicarious experience. Will there be another Manjunath Shanmughan  tomorrow , slain with methodical precision and in cold blood because he discovered the nefarious nocturnal activities of the vicious oil mob ?. And probably it’s entire diabolical network ?.  The answer, is a loud unambiguous, unequivocal—YES.

I was told that I had “ topped” the written examination cum interview in a strangely  hushed manner by a perpetually smiling secretary at the Head Office . I had thus earned the right to be treated like a blue eyed boy , as this was amongst the early recruitments being done by this public sector enterprise post-nationalisation.  This meant that amongst the 50 odd Management Trainees , I would be in the select coterie of candidates who could choose his functional discipline—Operations, Aviation or Sales. The interview which followed the post- training sessions was as brief as Sachin Tendulkar’s innings at the crease these days—- sales, it was. When I asked rather innocuously how could  I have a sales target when we were  advertising oil conservation and fuel saving , it was met with a contemptuous indifference reserved for a college upstart afflicted by a serious mental aberration. So off I went for my first professional posting to a regional office.

In those days post- nationalization , the oil companies senior management  staff had much snootiness , with many of them belonging to the upper strata of society  , fork and knife type with blue blood to boot, a  royal kinship and political lineage being added qualifications. St Stephen’s, Mayo and  Doon School ruled the roost in the Old Boy’s Club. The Divisional Manager ( who typically headed a region) was on the invitation list of society’s glitterati; after all, you needed his desperate intervention to get that coveted LPG connection for your newly married daughter. Even getting a refill cylinder ahead of the waiting list was like making a huge social statement.

My first serious assignment entailed being “ attached “ to a local Area Sales Officer ( who would narrate voluminous stories on the good ole days of the company’s historical multinational era) , and traveling into the rural interiors of Maharashtra in his personal  car . I noticed something inordinately  fishy every time we visited a retail outlet. The quarterly inspection we were supposed to conduct was to have a sudden surprise element; instead it had become traditional company practice to inform the dealer concerned before-hand .

As a young man of 21 yrs and six months in his first job , such business practices defied basic wisdom and practical common sense. It certainly was a real eye-opener. As I soon discovered , the Sales Officer was second to God Almighty himself, with the dealer genuflecting and gesticulating with feverish emotion his delight at seeing us all from the “ company”. Not surprisingly, the petrol pump would have immaculate house-keeping, the price charts were correctly displayed, the customer complaint book was filled with embarrassing exaggerated  adulation and the attendant staff stood  in creased uniform.

While the so-called inspection would be carried out amidst small glasses of masala chai and fried  samosas,   elaborate dinner plans would also be simultaneously conceived with meticulous detail. The dispensing pump staff would give the SO’s  ( the acronym for the Sales Officer) car a royal shampoo bath . But what really stunned me was the conspicuous comfort with which they would tank up the car .  I never ever saw the SO  pay cash or cheque , but he never failed to collect the three inch square petrol receipt. After all, one had to submit original vouchers for reimbursing expense claims. My induction training thus left me thoroughly nonplused, partially disillusioned and highly agitated. I longed to make an inspection tour all by myself. A month later , I got that elusive chance.

I was summoned to make my first independent inspection visit to a popular district which housed some established dealers on both the national highways as well as the bustling city. As I landed by the red and yellow MSRTC bus, I was flabbergasted  to see that there were two prominent dealers awaiting my arrival , hands folded and sporting a blatantly fake smile, reminiscent of airline crews. Clearly, they had already been advised of my peregrinations. I firmly refused breakfast and chai pani propositions in their palatial paradise of multiple floors, and got down to the dirty business of taking oil dip measurements.

Oil companies have a straightforward formula to calculate adulteration possibilities, and evaporation losses. I began to thoroughly enjoy doing the arithmetical  calculations , pursuing it with aggressive enthusiasm. The objective was to identify if the dealer had added subsidized kerosene into the petrol and or  high speed diesel tank to take advantage of price differential. Given their overall sales volumes, the potential for black money was astronomical. The results of my clinical investigations were disturbingly alarming; out of the seven pumps I had reviewed, five were disproportionately high in contamination , while two were moderately north of tolerance limits. In short, adulteration was the norm , not the exception.

I knew this was absolutely sensational stuff and demanded immediate suspension of all supplies pending laboratory tests of sampled fuel by the company. I felt like a Bollywood hero and a social crusader combined. . With a triumphant smile of the New Age Messiah,  scurrying around with cocky arrogance and breathless anticipation , I submitted my Tour Reports to the big boss. He picked them up and I deciphered an indistinct,  fleeting amusement, before a large frown descended on his countenance, which was soon supplanted by flushed cheeks, and I knew that he was not blushing. His rage was palpable.

As I sat there in nervous trepidation, I got my first lesson in business principles: “ I like your enthusiasm and spirit; unfortunately, they are misplaced. It is obvious that you lack practical business experience. Do you know the repercussions of your bizarre reports ? .It could lead to our retail outlets losing sales, while our competitors thrive. And we will be the only buffoons trying to make an example of our own fraternity while competing outlets will prosper unhindered, as their sales teams will protect and promote their business goals. Do you think it is fair? You are in sales, and choking supplies is not part of your performance review, young man.  Learn to build relationships, develop a  spirit of accommodation and give and take”. Mark McCormack was bingo;  there are some things  you can never learn in  a business school.

Enlightened and educated in pragmatic business norms and appropriately chastised for being too methodical, I went as part of a fact-finding team for selecting new dealers in a backward district. An overnight trip was warranted. The most promising candidate,  who was incidentally politically well connected , boasted pompously that he had already pocketed the allotment. It was to later come true. Joint inspections with other oil companies were such a theatrical farce, you could have christened them as a Bombay theatre slapstick comedy, “ You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours ”. LPG, Kerosene, MS/HSD, and even special oils and bulk sales, everywhere in the  trade the underlying story had the same dubious  concurrent theme across all product lines. . And inspection reports became just another document for claiming cash reimbursements—they were a  meaningless paper exercise..

The blue- eyed boy  had the unique distinction of not being confirmed in his job, ostensibly because I was an “ unenthusiastic traveler ”. I resigned a few months later, just shy of completing two years, to pursue an MBA. Manjunath Shanmughan  joined IOC after his IIM, Lucknow.

I have since moved on and worked in foreign banks, asset management, financial services,  management  consulting and Internet business and experienced extraordinary changes and incredible happenings. . Twenty-one years later, oil companies are the biggest consumers of advertising budgets on TV networks, and sponsor cricket tournaments , entertainment events and Formula 1 race drivers. Marketing whiz-kids talk of the end of commodity positioning and the rise of  product branding in the petroleum sector . Mani Shankar Aiyer is working assiduously to lay transnational pipelines and negotiate oil barrel price deals for India . And the oil price news affects the Sensex with cataclysmic effect.  But as Manjunath’s  death tells us all, deep down inside nothing has changed. Nothing.

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