Watch out the 'Sniffer' is back on the prowl

Vol 19, PW 19 (02 Jun 16) People & Policy

Six years after India launched NELP-IX you'd think there would be huge interest in the latest offer of 46 areas launched on May 25 at the Ashok Hotel in Delhi.

There is, but only from locals. Freckled and pale white faces - an accepted barometer of foreign enthusiasm for Indian licensing rounds - were scarce among the 450 or so that turned up.

Bar one: Dr. Mike Watts, ex-Cairn Energy exploration director or the 'Sniffer' as Mani Shankar Aiyar once called him for his ability to discover oil where others failed - a gift that has undeniably transformed Rajasthan.

Yes, Watts was there, predictably "coy" about revealing which of the 46 areas he'll bid for but there nonetheless as founder/director of UK-based Magna Energy along with former Cairn CFO Jann Browne and longstanding Indian partner Sundeep Bhandari. Such is Watts's Messianic reputation Bhandari wouldn't have found it difficult to arrange a post-lunch meeting with Dharmendra Pradhan the next day, which he did at around 5pm.

One topic you can be sure Watts didn't discuss with Pradhan was the government's 2014 decision to expropriate 9.82% held by UK-based Cairn Energy in BSE-listed Cairn India when he and Jann Browne were at the helm. Obviously, that's not their problem anymore.

But as arbitration looms, it's a huge problem for India's image abroad that explains the absence of overseas interest in this licensing round.