NEW DELHI: State-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is preparing for a record third interim chairman as no full-time head of India’s most profitable company has yet been selected in 17 months since the post fell vacant, sources said.
ONGC is without a regular chairman and managing director since April 2021. Subhash Kumar, the senior-most director on the company board and the director for finance, was named officiating head after Shashi Shanker superannuated on March 31, 2021. And when Kumar retired on December 31, 2021, Alka Mittal, Director for Human Resources, was given an additional charge.
Mittal will superannuate at month-end and unless she is given an extension, the next senior-most director, Rajesh Kumar Srivastava, Director (Exploration), is likely to be named as interim head, two officials with knowledge of the matter said.
The third interim chairman – a record for ONGC – is being talked about as the government is yet to even identify a full-time head.
A search-cum-selection committee, which was in February this year tasked to identify suitable candidates, began work only this month after terms of reference were finalised.
The panel has shortlisted nine candidates on the basis of higher eligibility age limit proposed by the oil ministry, which brought most existing directors – who otherwise were ineligible to even apply, in the zone of consideration, they said.
The shortlisted include Mittal and Srivastava as well as three other directors on the ONGC board – Om Prakash Singh, Director (Technology & Field Services); Pankar Kumar, Director (Offshore) and Anurag Sharma, Director (Onshore).
The other shortlisted candidates are outside of ONGC and include heads of oil marketing companies, the officials said.
The panel will interview the candidates and send recommendations to the oil ministry, which will forward it to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by the Prime Minister for final vetting and approval.
The committee shortlisted candidates on the basis of the oil ministry’s revised eligibility criteria that raised the eligibility age.
The ministry proposed that any candidate to be eligible for consideration should not be more than 60 years of age on the date of occurrence of vacancy, according to the ministry’s office memorandum sent to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on June 17.
The vacancy arose on March 31, 2021.
Prior to this change, the minimum age prescribed for being eligible for the top job is 45 years. Besides, internal candidates needed to have two years of residual service as on the date of vacancy and three years for external candidates.
What the ministry proposed was that any eligible candidate who is not more than 60 years of age at the time of occurrence of vacancy which was April 1, 2021, should be considered eligible. This essentially meant that the current acting chairman, Alka Mittal, who otherwise would retire in August-end and was ineligible, would come under the zone of consideration.
Also, Srivastava, who retires on December 31, and Sharma, who superannuates on February 28 next year, have become eligible.
Previously, only Pankaj Kumar and Om Prakash Singh were eligible.
The ministry also proposed appointment for a period of three years from the date of joining instead of the present five-year term, according to the letter.
The selection will be done through a three-member search-cum-selection committee headed by PESB chairman and composed of oil secretary and former Indian Oil chairman B Ashok (outside expert).
The panel was formed on February 4, 2022 but the terms of reference are being framed recently.
Most board-level appointments at public sector companies are done on the basis of recommendations of the Public Enterprise Selection Board (PESB) but the government headhunter in June last year did not find anyone suitable among nine candidates, including two serving IAS officers, to head ONGC.
“Keeping in view the strategic importance and vision for the company and its future, the board did not recommend any candidate and decided to constitute a search committee,” the ministry letter said referring to PESB’s interviews on June 5, 2021.
The panel was constituted after eight months of that recommendation on February 4. The ACC approved “consideration of central government officers, including those of the armed forces of the Union and the all India services for the post on immediate absorption basis.”
“Energy security is critical for the nation. ONGC plays a pivotal role in exploration as India’s National Oil Company (NOC). Its activities need to be scaled significantly and rapidly. As an NOC, it is necessary to have a specially designed ‘sui generis’ job description for ONGC in order to attract the best talent available,” the ministry note had said.
As per the practice, PESB recommends a name for a board-level position at least three months prior to arising of the vacancy. However, in the case of ONGC, PESB advertised and interviewed candidates after the retirement of Shashi Shanker on March 31, 2021.
The committee route for appointment of PSU board members has very sparingly been used in the past. In 2016, current NTPC chairman Gurdeep Singh was appointed through the route. Last appointment using the route was that of Sanjeev Kumar as the chairman of Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL).
PESB on June 5, 2021, interviewed nine out of the 10 candidates who had applied for the post of chairman and managing director of ONGC. Those interviewed included senior bureaucrats Avinash Joshi and Niraj Verma.
This was the second time in one-and-a-half decades that a suitable candidate was not found among those who had applied.
In August 2006, PESB chose R S Sharma to head the company but the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in February 2007 vetoed his appointment as it wanted the selection process to be widened by inviting candidates from the private sector.
In June 2007, PESB again selected Sharma and his candidature was this time endorsed by the ACC.