Singh tells over 50s: head to crematorium

Vol 26, PW 10 (04 May 23) People & Policy

Arun Singh's supporters say he "means well", but others at ONGC are fuming over insensitive comments made by the chairman and other directors during a webcast to employees.

Singh and directors Pankaj Jain (production), (Ms) Sushma Rawat (exploration) and (Ms) Pomila Jaspal (finance) addressed approximately 26,000 employees over the Internet during the event, initially scheduled for April 19 but postponed by a day to April 20 (2023) over an IT glitch. "The webcast was meant to motivate employees," said an ONGC middle manager, "but it demotivated them."

Much of the anger relates to Singh's provocation to employees aged 50 and over, who he reportedly said should prepare to visit a "shamshaan" or crematorium. Singh's remark that ONGC employees' wives should quit their jobs and join their husbands when posted to new locations was deemed equally insulting.

He is said to have argued that wives would otherwise spend their salaries on "cosmetics and fashion." Employees also angrily claim that company directors stated during the webcast that production is declining because they are lazy and inefficient, not because the ageing fields are naturally declining.

On April 25 (2023), in a three-page letter to Singh, with copies to the full-time directors, ONGC Officers Association general secretary George Ravi Shekeran said employees were "pained to no end" at "your blunt bashing and direct allegations directed towards the 'vested stakeholders' (employees), giving a perception, especially among the younger dedicated workforce, that you are ill-informed or have formed an impression based on the few who stick around for their own benefits with the powers that be." Shekeran also slammed ONGC for hiring retired employees.

"It is a point of wonder that, on the one hand, the management wants the 50-plus 'seniors' to take a back seat while hiring retired employees as consultants and advisors. A mismatch between words and actions!" Shekeran reminded Singh that "Rome wasn't built in a day, but it burned in one."

He said ONGC has been built due to the hard work and sacrifices of both experienced and new employees, all of whom "need to be well motivated to keep the ONGC flag flying or it may prove to be counterproductive." LK Mirchandani, chairman of the All India ONGC Ex-Employees Welfare Association (OSEWA), was similarly scathing.

In a two-page letter sent to Singh on April 21 (2023), copied to ONGC directors and oil secretary Pankaj Jain, Mirchandani said: "Your comments for employees aged above 50 years to perform selflessly and allow leadership to grow at junior level included an austere and hostile remark 'to be prepared to visit the shamshaan' - all of which will surely leave a trail of demoralised workers in the 50-60 age bracket." Singh's defenders within ONGC said he meant well, "but his choice of words was perhaps inappropriate."