Modi Government Eyes Big Gain From Sale Of Its Entire Stake In BPCL, Likely To Seek Parliament’s NodBPCL Refinery, Mumbai (Photo by Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The government may offload its entire stake in the country's second largest refiner and fuel retailer, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd (BPCL), to foreign and private firms as part of its strategic disinvestment plan for this year but will need to take prior approval from Parliament to go ahead with its ambitious privatisation plan.

Official sources said state-owned oil firms need legislative approval for change in their constitution since they were created through an Act of Parliament. So, the Centre would have to place a new bill for enabling the privatisation or changes in the Nationalisation Act, if the entire stake of the government in BPCL has to be sold.

The plan to sell majority stake in the BPCL is first serious attempt towards privatisation of non-strategic PSUs after the exercise lost steam post 2004. Under the previous BJP-led NDA regime headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the government had sold its stake in companies such as the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, Hindustan Zinc, Balco and IPCL to private entities.

On Monday (1 October), a group of Secretaries cleared strategic sales in BPCL, BEML, the Container Corporation of India (Concor) and the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI). Stake sale in THDC India and Neepco, both power companies, have also been approved. These could be taken over by state-run NTPC and NHPC.

With regard to BPCL, the plan is to sell entire 53.3 per cent stake held by Centre to a strategic partner. This could wither be done at one go or in parts. The government may also decide to retain some portion of the equity but a call will be taken after getting sense of investor interest for the profit-making PSU.

At today's share price of Rs 494.05 on the BSE, the government's 53.29 per cent stake is worth Rs 57,000 crore or around $8 billion. This is more than half of the FY20 disinvestment target of Rs 1,05,000 crore. Keeping in mind the global economic environment, the government could reduce the share sale to say 26 per cent to get right investor interest.

While no Indian company looks like mobilizing such huge funds for BPCL's buy, industry experts hinted that companies from Russia and the Gulf region could be targeted to get the necessary investment. This, sources said, could be done through government to government talks as most oil comoanies in the region are state-controlled.

BPCL, in present times, will be an attractive buy for companies ranging from Saudi Aramco to French energy giant Total SA which are vying to enter the world's fastest-growing fuel retail market, including entry in retail space where BPCL has significant presence.

Alternatively, the government could also keep other oil PSUs such as Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), and OIL India on a standby to go in for share buybacks in the event strategic sale to a private partner met with little success.

Currently both BPCL and HPCL are governed by Nationalisation Act. BPCL was nationalised in 1976 by an Act of Parliament. This Act now needs to be repealed.

Both HPCL and BPCL's disinvestment was blocked even in 2003 when the Supreme Court had ruled that the two oil companies can be privatised only after Parliament amends a law it had previously passed to nationalise the two firms. The decision came after a high profile case was fought in the court between F.S. Nariman and Shanti Bhushan representing the petitioners including the Oil Sector Officers Association and Harish Salve representing the government.

Only last year, state-owned upstream major ONGC bought the government's entire 51.11 per cent stake in HPCL.

BPCL was previously Burmah Shell, which in 1976 was nationalised by an Act of Parliament. Burmah Shell, set up in the 1920s, was an alliance between Royal Dutch Shell and Burmah Oil Co and Asiatic Petroleum (India).

The Supreme Court had in September 2003 cited the ESSO (Acquisition of Undertaking in India) Act and the Burmah Shell (Acquisition of Undertaking in India) Act, 1976 and Caltex (Acquisition of Shares of Caltex Oil Refining India Ltd and all the Undertakings in India for Caltex India Ltd) Act, 1977 to rule that the government cannot privatise HPCL and BPCL without approaching Parliament for changing the Nationalisation Act.

BPCL operates four refineries at Mumbai, Kochi in Kerala, Bina in Madhya Pradesh and Numaligarh in Assam with a combined capacity to convert 38.3 million tonnes of crude oil into fuel. It has 15,078 petrol pumps and 6,004 LPG distributors.

The government proposes to raise Rs 1.05 lakh crore from disinvestment in the current financial year. It had exceeded asset-sale targets of Rs 1 lakh crore in FY18 and Rs 80,000 crore in FY19.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

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