media report
A tribute to Subir Raha, leader extraordinaire
5/3/2010  |  The Resource Digest

As Cyrus had said, like in life so in death, SUBIR RAHA could not be buried in obscurity, whether or not there was any condolence message from the Petroleum Minister or the Prime Minister, people who mattered remembered the former ONGC chief, says SUGATO HAZRA.

You cannot be buried in obscurity: you are exposed upon a grand theater to the view of the world. If your actions are upright and benevolent, be assured they will augment your power and happiness," said Cyrus of Persia. It was long before Jesus Christ was born, modern states came into being, oil emerged as energy source and certain large companies could use effectively their influence to suck riches for themselves and indeed before the life and times of Subir Raha.

As Cyrus had said, like in life so in death, Subir Raha could not be buried in obscurity, whether or not there was any condolence message from the Petroleum Minister or the Prime Minister, people who mattered remembered the former ONGC chief. Indefatigable, Raha fought the cancer in the Indian system of governance to finally succumb to the one afflicting his body.
Subir Raha
What is so great about Subir Raha? Chairmen come and chairmen go, why must one be unduly sentimental about one? That too somebody who retired on completion of his term some four years back? If ministers, busy as they are in solving national problems, have to remember every such retired PSU chief when can they do their work? More so when the ex-ONGC boss was trouble-some, rebellious, who even fought the government decision and got the same changed. What if he fired ONGC's ambition, brought to ONGC a theme song "josh, nayi umange jagane ka (the zest to light new ambitions)" and then scripted what many accepted as 'perhaps, the best turnaround success story of a public sector undertaking'.

"Subir Raha was a leader par excellence. He infused a rare kind of dynamism in ONGC immediately after he took over its rein. Under his leadership, ONGC achieved multiple milestones," wrote RS Sharma, who succeeded Raha as Chairman of ONGC. Such was the enthusiasm of the ONGCians that the company emerged with the highest market capitalization among all Indian corporations, private sector included. It crossed Rs 2 trillion mark. Raha's style was big. He preferred big acquisitions and big investments - an unheard of trait in a PSU executive.

Soon after taking over as chairman, he pushed its overseas arm ONGC Videsh (OVL) to invest, India's biggest overseas investment then - $670 million in a producing field in strife-torn Sudan. Predictably that gamble was widely criticized. But the same paid off more than anticipated providing a free cash flow of $500 million till date with more to come. That foray also opened doors for ONGC to participate in refinery and pipelines projects in that country. OVL has never looked back since then. From just one property in Vietnam when Raha took charge, it has expanded to 24 properties in 14 countries. From a minor reserve base and zero production when Subir Raha took over, OVL is now India's second largest exploration and production company in terms of reserves and production, next only to parent ONGC.

The other major effort was launch of the Sagar Samriddhi, arguably one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the Indian oil and gas industry. The project was the biggest-ever deepwater exploration campaign by a single operator anywhere in the world. ONGC hired three drill ships each at $200,000 per day to hunt and establish 4 billion tonnes of reserves. Raha's foresight paid off in terms of cost-saving as rig rates more than doubled a year after as crude oil prices rose. More important the global oil hunt post sharp rise in crude prices saw a massive shortage of drilling rigs. ONGC could explore when market-savvy large corporations had been hunting for rigs and knocking at every possible door.

Raha had a dream and nothing could stop him from achieving the same. He single handedly drove ONGC's vertical integration by forcing ONGC to buy private-owned but sick Mangalore Refinery & Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL) in 2003 at a throwaway price. He then managed to turn around the refinery in the first year of operations.

RS Butola, who was Raha's choice for ONGC Videsh Ltd's managing director, then a General Manager in ONGC, recalled, "I remember, about seven years back, he called me up one day from the petroleum ministry and asked me to work out a proposal for the acquisition of MRPL, when we had no inkling of it. We collected a lot of information from the internet and our banking sources, and within a week, a proposal got materialised. I could not imagine things could move so fast." MRPL now has a mini-ratna status.

ONGC, under Raha, was awarded the highest-ever Credit Rating for any Indian Corporate, private sector included, by the international credit rating agency, Moody's Investors Services. The Navratna company secured Baa1 (Indicative Foreign Currency debt rating), 2 notches higher than Sovereign rating and A2 (Local Currency issuer rating), 6 notches higher than Sovereign rating, with 'stable' outlook. The company made 10 New Oil & Gas Finds, comprising 5 in Deepwaters of Krishna-Godavari Basin, 3 in Shallow Offshore in Mumbai, Saurashtra and Krishna-Godavari Basins, and 2 Onshore in Krishna-Godavari and Assam Shelf Basins.

Raha's ideal vision of a corporate leader was somebody who may not be uniformly liked, but nobody should be able to point an accusing finger at his moral and professional integrity. That is certainly how he would like to be remembered. And this determination to maintain professional integrity saw him taking up issues even against the government. Recall the tiff that arose over the Petroleum Ministry's insistence on appointing the Director-General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) to the board of directors of the ONGC. The ONGC chief Raha pointed out that having the DGH on the board would involve a conflict of interest since currently this agency had been functioning as the Petroleum industry regulator. He had threatened to file a counter-resolution offering his resignation from his post as chairman in case the Ministry insisted on appointing the DGH on the board. The ministry accepted Raha's view.

What is more, the then minister Mani Shankar Aiyar defended his CEO when verbal duel broke out between Raha and Sibal, then DGH. Raha in a letter to the then petroleum secretary M S Srinivasan had charged DGH of being biased against the public sector. He protested against DGH Sibal's continued "sarcastic" and "derogatory" remarks "denigrating the company in public and media". As an example, he pointed out how Sibal had taken a dig at ONGC becoming the second company in the world, after Chevron-Texaco, to drill at depths in excess of 3,000 metres under water.

"What is the point of drilling the deepest water well if it turns out to be a dry hole," Sibal had said at the Delhi roadshow. Raha, obviously, was not amused. "...some exploratory wells go dry, and some do not. There is no E&P company in the world, including DGH's favoured Indian private sector company, which does not have dry holes, as would be known to Shri Sibal," Raha wrote in his letter.

Raha was not alone. Even the then Sebi chief M Damodaran had complained to then petroleum secretary SC Tripathi against Sibal for publicly trashing a series of oil/gas strikes by ONGC, including one confirmed by then oil minister Mani Shankar Aiyar from Norway.

Interesting point to note is that Sibal had to quit his post last year when his acceptance of favour from private corporation became public. In fact, preliminary investigations by the CBI into the functioning of the office of DGH found evidence of "gross abuse and misuse of public office" by Sibal. He allegedly had a "nexus with private parties, obtaining pecuniary advantage in award of contracts and supply of information of sensitive data of resources", the CBI informed the Petroleum Ministry. The agency asked the "competent authority" in the Ministry for permission to investigate further the alleged offences by Sibal during his tenure as the country's deemed regulator for the upstream exploration sector.

The fact that Raha was right and Sibal was biased may be gauged from the generous tribute from the former petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar who said he found in Raha "a man worthy of my steel, particularly when we disagreed". Aiyar said Raha was a "truly outstanding public sector executive" with an independent mind. The curious case of political interference in Indian PSU management could not be better explained by the failure of the government to extend Raha's term in ONGC after he completed his five years tenure. Raha was about 57, more than two years less than the stipulated retirement age in the government. No one knows the exact reasons for the denial of extension. It is believed that Raha ruffled many a powerful feather in the corridors of power by his straight talking and perhaps by exposing Sibal, the then DGH. Silence from Deora, the current minister and also no recognition of Raha from the Prime Minister make one feel the invisible hand behind Raha's unceremonious exit. Some say that the final straw was the TNR Rao Committee report that held the management responsible for the Bombay High fire in 2005. Rao, a former secretary in the Petroleum ministry, however did never mention Subir Raha accountable for the accident or for compromising on safety measures.

Raha retired in 2006. Yet more than three-years later when he succumbed to cancer media took note. The glowing tributes from common man explain the position occupied by an upright well-meaning government officer who can stand against vested interests, howsoever powerful that might be, in the heart of an average Indian, how he remains a hero in real life. India needs more such Subir Rahas to take the people up from the morass of underdevelopment.

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