Under fire for proposing a steep hike in natural gas prices, Oil Minister M Veerappa Moily today stunned the nation by saying that petroleum ministers are threatened by oil import lobbies to deter them from taking decisions that could cut the USD 160 billion import bill.
The charge was quickly slammed by opposition parties, with some calling him a "liar".
Moily, who had been attacked by CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta for allegedly benefiting Reliance Industries by raising gas prices, said he was trying to revive investor sentiment by giving a "right" price for gas.
A price correction will help attract investments in the stagnant oil and gas exploration and will lead to higher domestic output and lesser reliance on imports, he said.
"I am telling you with all sense of responsibility (that) we are floating in oil and gas in this country. And we don't explore it. We put every obstruction not to do it. There is bureaucratic obstructions and delays.
"And also there are other lobbies. They don't want us to stop imports. There are some lobbies who are working on that.
Every minister is threatened many a times. Every minister who occupies this position is threatened," he told reporters here.
He claimed that decision making process is "obstructed (and) aborted", but hastened to add that "Moily cannot be threatened."
Moily however refused to name anyone or identify anyone who may have directly or indirectly threatened ministers.
"History will speak about it. It is for you to judge," he said, adding oil imports will rise dramatically if domestic production is not incentivised through right pricing policy.
His statement however drew sharp reactions with Dasgupta alleging that the minister was lying and concocting false story to help Reliance gain from his proposal on gas prices.
"This is a loot and he is a liar if he speaks of any import pressure," Dasgupta said adding public sector firms are the only firms importing oil and gas in the country and pressure that Moily is talking about must be from them, which cannot be the case.
Former Petroleum Minister and senior BJP leader Ram Naik said no pressure was ever brought on him during his five year tenure from 1999 to 2004, and Moily should name lobbies that brought pressure on him or his predecessors, S Jaipal Reddy, Murli Deora or Mani Shankar Aiyar.
"This (increase in oil imports) will work to the detriment of the country," Moily said.
The revision in natural gas prices was aimed at reviving investor confidence and attracting investments, he added.
"For the last 4-5 years, investor sentiments is not that high... We have to give right price, otherwise nobody will come. One well (in the ultra deepsea) may sometime cost millions of dollars," he said.
Moily said he has proposed to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) the raising of domestic gas prices from current USD 4.2 per million British thermal unit to USD 6.775.
Stating that he will not be cowed down by any lobby, he said he will continue to work for an India that is energy independent by 2030.
"I am not helpless. Any timid minister will not go forward... I have come here to strive hard for the sake of the country, to work for the country. If anybody thinks that decision making process in the oil sector will be prevented they are totally wrong," Moily said.
Dasgupta however said the minister was "building a false statement, a false story", and claimed that there was opposition to the proposal to increase gas price from his own officers and two important ministries of power and fertiliser.
"Therefore I believe the story of pressure is being concocted," he added.
Naik said he was the only petroleum minister in the history to have a continuous 5 year stint and he never saw pressure from anyone. "There was no such pressure on me nor any effort to do or bring pressure. Pressures are brought on those who succumb to pressure and nobody pressurised me."
CPI leader D Raja said Moily should speak out the truth.
"Which is that lobby, which is that company threatening the petroleum ministry and him," he asked.
His party colleague Atul Kumar Anjan said Moily should disclose the names of those exerting pressure. "Also, an SIT must be formed to make a report withing three months because it is a matter of plunder of country's natural resources."
"After having dismantled many of the obstacles, it is in the national interest to go for aggressive exploration.
Investors should also come. They should be attracted, it is not being done now," Moily said.
India spent a recored USD 160 billion on import of oil last fiscal and imports are going up, he added.
Raising domestic oil and gas production by increased exploration is the answer but decisions are not taken which is hurting the country.
"Decisions are not taken. Trend is not to take decisions here. I don't want to blame anybody. This is the fate of the country," he said.
Asked about Dasgupta's allegations that the gas price hike was to benefit Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), he said he and his ministry are open to any solution that will help unshackle the present grid of non-investment-no-production and increased imports.
"I had called him (Dasgupta) but he is not prepared to come for a discussion. But I can reassure Gurudas Dasgupta or whosoever is there in the market, all the criticism should be there, but it should not get personal," he said.
He said he was open to any suggestion of the CPI leader.
"I am open to any suggestion by Gurudas Dasgupta or any other person. If they can come out with best solution, we are open it as after all we are doing this in the interest of the country.
"But in the process of ego, in the process of lobbying and in the process of just criticising for stake of criticism or in the process of politicising, don't commit national crime. Don't prevent exploration in the country. Let us move ahead more aggressively, it is in the best interest of the country," he said.
Moily added: "We had suggested USD 6.7. It is for CCEA to reduce it or increase. I am not playing for any lobby. I am playing for national lobby. I will ignore lobby. Anybody has useful suggestion, they can give it to me."