India drops plan to shut petrol pumps at night

Widely-ridiculed measure suggested to curb oil imports amid flailing economy.

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NEW DELHI // India's government denied yesterday it was considering shutting filling stations at night to reduce oil imports, a widely ridiculed measure reportedly under discussion to tackle a deepening economic crisis.

Veerappa Moily, the oil minister, sparked the speculation on Sunday when he said that shutting petrol pumps during the night was one of several austerity measures being assessed to cut the imports bill.

News of the proposal, a throwback to India's pre-liberalisation past when the government tightly regulated all parts of the economy, sparked feverish debate on television and Twitter.

It also apparently took the rest of the cabinet by surprise, leading to a formal denial issued through the information ministry.

"The ministry of petroleum and natural gas has clarified that there is no proposal under consideration of the government to allow sale of petroleum products from the retail outlets only during certain hours," it said.

Mr Moily also later denied the plan, saying other measures were in the pipeline to rein in India's oil import bill.

"I am doing the brainstorming on the measures. I have not finalised this and it is at the very initial stage," he said on CNN-IBN yesterday, adding he was likely to unveil the measures on September 16.

"But this closing of the pumps is not part of the proposals."

Political parties, including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, made fun of the plan.

"Won't the people fill their car fuel tanks in the morning? This is a strange move by Moily," said Shahnawaz Hussain, the BJP spokesman.

The regional Trinamool Congress Party, which withdrew from the coalition government last September over planned pro-business reforms, described the measure as bizarre.

"They are making a laughing stock of themselves ... this is such a bizarre suggestion," the MP Derek O'Brien said.

India imports about 80 per cent of its oil needs, and its import bill has risen dramatically because of high global prices and a plunging rupee, which has hit record lows in recent weeks.

The country is struggling to shrink its current account deficit - the broadest measure of trade - which hit a record 4.8 per cent of GDP last year and is straining foreign exchange reserves.

In another proposed measure, New Delhi is also mulling increasing oil supplies from sanctions-hit Iran, which could save India US$8.5 billion (Dh31.2bn) in foreign exchange reserves, the Press Trust of India said.

New Delhi has launched a series of measures in recent weeks to try to plug the deficit amid a faltering economy and fears of a downgrade by ratings agencies.