The leaking fuel tanker

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likRasheed Kappan, August 4;Petrol bunks that dispense clean, unadulterated fuel in right measures is every motorist’s dream. But chasing that dream could be tough in a city of 450 bunks, some clean, some shady, some utterly avoidable.

Trapped in a gas-guzzling SUV, fast running out of fuel, Sudarshan frantically searched for the nearest petrol bunk. His GPS-enabled smartphone eventually showed him one, but one look at the user reviews, and he knew he had to avoid it like the plague. For, the consumers had unanimously declared their verdict in big bold letters: Poor mileage, adulteration, bad service…

As Bangalore grapples with its rampaging mess of 50 lakh vehicles, the city’s 450-odd petrol bunks are in the spotlight like never before. Beckoning the drivers with the promise of clean, fuel-efficient petrol and diesel, the bunks are in the midst of an intense struggle to keep pace. Discrete, tech-savvy, the commuters aren’t easily falling for the old tricks. So, they would continue to look out for those automated, transparent, user-friendly bunks where adulteration is apparently an aberration!

Yes, adulteration is history in most new-age city bunks, contends Ravindranath BR, president, Bangalore Petroleum Dealers Association. “It is tough, not possible at all, when you have mobile laboratories operated by the oil companies randomly inspecting the bunks,” he explains. The labs take their samples from the nozzles at the bunks, and tests the fuel for final boiling point right there. If the point goes beyond 210 degrees Celsius, adulteration gets exposed. Adulterated fuel typically reaches boiling point only at about 220 to 225 degrees Celsius.

Fluctuating mileage

But the consumers are not easily convinced. When they find mileage of their bikes and cars wildly fluctuating from bunk to bunk, they seek answers. The needle of suspicion then points to the attenders at some bunks, the boys who actually fill the petrol tanks and allegedly resort to the old tricks. In bunks with CCTVs, every movement might be remotely watched by the bunk managers. Yet, CCTVs are still exceptions, and the filling stations are the territory of the attenders.

Bunk owners do admit the role of the attenders, not in adulteration but in playing with the scales. Deliberately blocking the driver’s view of the meter, diverting the rider’s attention momentarily, the attenders might take out any trick up their sleeves. The owners agree, although they blame the oil companies for paying the boys poorly and thus inciting such practices.

As one dealer explains, the salaries range from Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000. But there are several bunks where monthly pays do not exceed Rs 4,000. “At these rates, we are not getting enough attenders. There is an acute shortage. And when they do join and some of them resort to cheating the customers, some bunk owners are forced to look the other way,” reasons the dealer. Does this mean the customer has no choice at all? “No, they can stop this if they are more alert. For instance, we keep asking the car drivers to get out of the vehicle for a few minutes while the tanks are being filled. But 90 per cent of drivers don’t do that. Forget that, they don’t even switch off their mobile phones when we plead with them.”

Consumers who are in a hurry are often the easy targets of cheats, notes the manager of a bunk on the city’s outskirts. “Cheating while swiping credit and debit cards is another trend. There are a hundred ways to cheat, and even digital meters are not an obstacle,” says the manager. There is an unwritten code that, to a certain extent, you should allow the boys to do that. “Otherwise, nobody comes to work!”

Pilferage woes

Most dealers have to contend with the problem of oil pilferage, the deliberate leakage of fuel as it is ferried from the Devanagunthi terminal on the city’s outskirts to the bunks. The oil tanker trucks are the usual suspects. The low transportation costs offered by the three oil companies are once again cited as an excuse to steal!  The dealers hope a committee of oil company representatives, transport contractors and State transport department members, could rationalise the tanker costs and thus arrest the pilferage to an extent.

The tamper-proof Abloy locks, which were once considered foolproof by the companies and dealers, are apparently unlocked using manipulated key sets. The companies have now proposed to introduce magnetic locks–the next level of Abloy devices. But it would only be a matter of time, before these locks too are breached.

Using the duplicate keys, fuel is siphoned off with professional ease during transit. The volume taken out is calculated in such a way that the dealer at the receiver end does not suspect any foulplay. “For any oil product to settle down completely, it takes about 18 hours. The transporters know this, and calculate their volumes accordingly,” says a company insider.

Tanker truck drivers admit that the pilferage does happen in a big way. As long as the companies pay barely Rs 2.00 per litre per kilometre as transportation costs, the pilferage would remain. Intense competition for the transport contracts mean the lowest bidder, who cannot quote beyond a fixed rate, wins. Siphoning off the oil is one way of cutting the costs and keeping the profit margins constant.

Tracking the tankers using GPS technology was once seen as an effective monitoring mechanism. But the drivers say, they can easily explain away short halts as toilet stops. When the pilferage can happen in a matter of minutes, remote monitoring could be tough.
Stringent checks

Do pilferage losses push bunk owners to tamper with the meters and compensate for the leakages? That is out of question, contends an Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) official. “There are 14 different agencies, including the government, the police and independent parties, who inspect the quality and quantity of fuel at the retail outlets. Besides, there are inbuilt systems in place now which easily expose any meter tamperings,” explains the official, preferring anonymity.

The old bunks could still play around with the meters. Not the new ones, reasons a dealer from RT Nagar. “A memory chip inserted in the metering unit of the vending machine allows a company sales officer to check the exact date and time when it was last altered. Penalty will be hefty if it is found that the unit is removed without the approval of the company or the State Department of Legal Metrology,” says the dealer.

Faced with widespread public complaints about inaccurate meters two years ago, the Department had directed all petrol oulets to keep a five-litre calibrated can for anyone to check the accuracy. Random checks were made more frequent. “It has had the desired effect,” says an IOC official. “Adulteration was once a low-risk, high-reward game. Today, it is the other way around. Disciplinary guidelines are today so stringent, almost draconian, that the dealership could itself be terminated,” he explains.

Ultimately, the bunks would have to take the call. They could either get into the cheating game, and eventually lose loyal customers, or gain their trust through transparent, verifiable mechanisms. There is no third choice, because the bunk numbers could get far beyond the current 450. Shortcuts may not ensure long life in the intense competition that lies ahead.

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