A strike in public sector oil firms that has hit India hard "seems to be over", Petroleum Minister Murli Deora said Friday, as the fuel shortage sparked panic across the country.
On the third day of a nationwide strike by about 45,000 employees of 13 companies, shortages of petrol and diesel stranded many thousands of small and big vehicles in towns and cities.
Fuel-starved autorickshaws, taxis and private vehicles remained off the roads Friday in India's financial capital Mumbai, putting millions to hardship. The situation was only marginally better in New Delhi, where road traffic thinned by evening as scores of petrol and diesel pumps ran out of stock.
The Oil Sector Officers Association started an indefinite strike Wednesday in support of higher salaries.
But the government took a tough stand, threatening strikers with arrest if they did not report to work immediately.
Minister Deora, who had earlier accused the officers of blackmailing the country, asserted Friday evening: "The strike has not been withdrawn but it seems to be over."
The crisis management group of the cabinet met in the morning and decided that the government would not bow to the strikers.
A defiant Home Minister P. Chidambaram said: "If someone from the army has to be called, they will be called."
As panic mounted all over the country with motorists jostling for what little was available in petrol stations, Chidambaram said: "Strong action would be taken and I believe strong actions are being taken."
The threat appeared to be having its effect.
By evening, more and more officials got back to work, the authorities said, and the government was able to hold out hope that supplies to petrol pumps, power stations and refineries would normalise by the weekend.
Deora appealed to people to stop panic buying.
Petroleum ministry Secretary R.S. Pandey warned the strikers to get back to work or face arrest under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) and even the National Security Act (NSA).
At the same time, he said the strike had been withdrawn in the Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd (BPCL), one of the three big public sector oil companies. Officials in Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd (HPCL) did not join the strike.
At Indian Oil Corp (IOC), the biggest of the public sector firms, officials in south Indian branches started returning to work by evening.
IOC chief Sarthak Behuria hoped that the situation in the firm would normalise by Sunday. Officials in Oil India Ltd also returned to work, Pandey said.
By then enough damage had been done all over the country.
Thousands of petrol and diesel pumps ran dry and cooking gas distributors stopped taking orders for fresh supply. Some power stations and refineries also shut down as natural gas supplies failed.
In some areas, blacked-out residents could not run their generators due to lack of diesel.
Early Friday, the Federation of All India Petroleum Traders said that the petrol stocks in the national capital would be over by evening.
According to the federation, 60-70 percent of petrol pumps had already gone dry in the city.
Indo-Asian News Service