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Priti Patnaik: Fuelling a re-orientation challenge

BACKSTAGE/ Sushil Chandra Tripathi

Priti Patnaik  |  New Delhi 

Sushil Chandra Tripathi
New winds are blowing in the second floor of New Delhi's Shastri Bhawan, offices of the ministry of petroleum. Diplomats and top-ranking executives from large are all talking oil diplomacy.

An official from the ministry of external affairs has been seconded to the petroleum minister. "Out of the box" is the buzzword here.

So not surprisingly, Sushil Chandra Tripathi, secretary, petroleum and natural gas secretary, faces a massive re-orientation challenge. When he joined the ministry in July this year, not only did he have to quickly acquaint himself with global trends in oil demand and supply, he also needed to zoom in on economic opportunities so that the world can be explored for oil and gas to satisfy the burgeoning domestic demand.

In the middle of all this, the 58-year-old Tripathi, the youngest in the 1968 batch of Indian Administrative Service officers who would have been Cabinet secretary had his batch not been overlooked in the race, had to juggle numbers at meetings to balance the spurt in international prices of petroleum products and the pressures from to increase prices.

If Tripathi is unable to report too much success after his recent trip to Iran, where India was negotiating a gas-for-oilfield deal, it is unlikely that Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar will hold this against him.

However, as December sets in, Tripathi might find that his load has been lightened "" Talmiz Ahmed, the Indian Foreign Service officer, will join the petroleum ministry as additional secretary to take charge of oil diplomacy.

After diplomacy has been handed over to the diplomat, the global oil and gas hunting by the ministry will no longer be Tripathi's headache.

But the next important job of price fixation will sooner or later move to the petroleum and gas regulator. In the circumstances, the petroleum secretary will have to become differently skilled, something that will call for imagination and unconventional thinking.

But Tripathi is not new to turning threats into challenges. In his previous incarnation as secretary higher education in the HRD ministry, it fell to Tripathi to handle the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) imbroglio which lasted for a good part of the last year, sparked off by Dr Murli Manohar Joshi's decision to drastically reduce fees for these premier B-schools.

While Joshi was backed by zealous bureaucrats and refused to give in even when faced with a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, it was Tripathi who handled the situation with restraint and diplomacy, a considerable achievement considering that Joshi was his erstwhile professor at Allahabad University.

When the one-man Shunglu committee was set up to analyse the financial structure, funding and fee structure of the six IIMs in the country, the report said that there were discrepancies in the financial statements of the IIMs, charging institutes with overstating their expenditure.

It fell to Tripathi to restore the balance in the argument, saying that IIMs should have been run on a no-profit-no-loss basis instead of like a business.

He held talks with N R Narayana Murthy, chief mentor, Infosys and chairman, Board of directors, IIM Ahmedabad, and his team of negotiators to settle the case out of court.

With a change of government in May and the entry of new HRD Minister Arjun Singh, the ministry swung 360 degrees and restored the autonomy of the institutes.

As an IAS officer who understands that radical solutions can sometimes harm the cause they are supposed to remedy, Tripathi will now, however, need to find radical solutions in the ministry to redefine the role of a petroleum secretary.

Son of a Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, Tripathi studied Science and has specialised in development economics. In fact, he was most keen on an assignment but never managed a stint in the field.

He enjoys a reasonably skilful game of badminton, even organising a tournament at alma mater Allahabad University in his father's name.

First Published: Mon, December 06 2004. 00:00 IST