Recruitment at ONGC goes against DoPT order and Modi’s promise to scrap interviews

The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation recruitment process shows a pattern of rejecting candidates on the basis of minimum marks for the interview stage—in contravention of an October 2015 Mann Ki Baat address by Narendra Modi and a subsequent DoPT order. Amit Dave / REUTERS
14 December, 2018

Bushara Bano, a 29-year-old resident of Aligarh, scored 218 out of 300 in the University Grants Commission’s National Eligibility Test—one of the requirements to qualify for a position at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation—held in November 2017. That year, Bano applied to the post of a human-resources executive, a junior-level position, at the public-sector undertaking. She cleared the 194-marks cut off for Other Backward Class candidates. Out of the 20 vacancies for the position, five were reserved for OBC candidates, and she topped among the applicants in the category. Bano is a post-doctoral fellow at the Aligarh Muslim University with a PhD in human-resource management and a master of business administration degree in human resource and finance. Yet, she was not selected for the position. “I had good marks and the required qualification,” Bano said. “I was confident about my performance, but I lost in the last round.”

The ONGC issued the advertisement for the post in August 2017. The selection process was based on three parameters—60 marks based on the NET score, 25 marks for educational qualification and 15 marks for a personal interview. Candidates are evaluated on the aggregate score out of 100 and must qualify all three stages independently. Excluding the interview, Bano scored 62 out of 85 in the first two stages of the selection process. She was not selected despite being the only candidate holding a PhD. Bano attributed the denial of the job to a discriminatory interview process.

Apart from standard queries on the ONGC, her area of research and her interest in the company, she was also asked a question that made her uneasy. “One of the members of the interview board asked me if I would be comfortable working in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat. I said I am flexible with the location of the job and pointed out that I had worked for two years in another country, Saudi Arabia.” She had worked as an assistant professor at the College of Business Administration at the Jazan University in Saudi Arabia. “But they are your people, no?” Bano said the interviewer responded, referring to her Muslim identity. “This would be different,” he added. Bano was firm in her response: “No, they are not my people. I am from this country and my people are here.”

For the vacancies advertised in August, right-to-information documents reveal that many top scorers among the candidates for junior-level jobs were rejected at the interview stage. In December 2015, the department of personnel and training, which functions under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievance and Pension, issued an order discontinuing personal interviews for recruitment to junior-level government positions, including at public sector undertakings, from January 2016. The DoPT order expressly states, “From 1st January 2016 there will be no recruitment with interview at the junior level posts … all the advertisement for future vacancies will be without the Interview as part of the recruitment process.”

The DoPT’s order followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s October 2015 address of his monthly radio show, Mann Ki Baat, in which he announced his decision to “to do away with the tradition of interviews for small positions.” The prime minister observed, “When a poor man goes for an ordinary job, he faces so many problems … He loses money whether he gets the job or not. We keep hearing things like these and this is when I had an idea, why do we need to interview people for ordinary jobs.”

However, the ONGC’s recruitment process not only continues to rely on an interview, but also rejects candidates who do not meet a requisite minimum score out of 15 in the final stage—nine for general and OBC candidates, and six for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates. Bano believed she had answered all the questions well and expected to meet the minimum interview score—instead, she scored seven marks, and as a result, was disqualified from the position. Several candidates, like Bano, have found the process to be discriminatory and filed RTI applications to understand the reasons behind their non-selection. The ONGC’s responses to these RTIs reveal a pattern of rejecting candidates with a higher aggregate score than those selected for appointment, on the basis of the minimum cut-off requirement for the interview.

The ONGC Officers’ Association, or OOA, has been raising the issue of irregularities in the selection process since 2016. Despite complaints raised with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Central Vigilance Commission, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, board members and the chairperson of the ONGC—all authorities have failed to take action.

Madhusmita Das, a candidate from a Scheduled Caste community, had also applied for the HR executive position along with Bano. Das scored 206 marks in her NET. Her total score was 55 out of 85 in the first two stages of the ONGC’s selection process—based on the NET score and the educational qualification criteria. But Das, too, was disqualified, and learnt later that it was because she had been marked five out of 15 in her interview—one mark short of the minimum score for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates.

In April 2018, both Bano and Das filed RTI applications after their non-selection to inquire about the break-up of their marks. The responses they received indicate that the selection process effectively depends on the interview. “The whole selection process has been narrowed down to a 15-marks interview,” Hari Kumar, the president of the OOA, told me. “The assessment of educational qualification and nationally recognised UCG-NET, which forms 85 percent of the total score, turns out to be futile. Many eligible candidates are rejected in the last interview round.”

According to Kumar, several candidates approached the OOA for assistance after their candidature was rejected, and the association had helped them file RTI applications to find the reasons for their non-selection. “The RTI responses received by the aggrieved candidates have given documental proof for the issues we have been raising over the last few years,” Kumar told me. Though I attempted to contact many of these candidates, most of them were unwilling to speak on the record. Kumar said that people are afraid to complain about this for fear of being blacklisted in the selection process for government jobs.

Out of the 72 candidates who had appeared for the interview to become a HR executive in March 2018, 29 of them were selected—among whom, 13 came from the general category of candidates, seven from the OBC category, and nine from the SC/ST category. The candidate at the top of the list had 14 out of 15 marks for the interview, but an aggregate of only 57.71 in the first two stages. The majority of candidates who were not selected had scored around seven or eight marks in the interview. The aggregate score for the first two stages among the 13 general category candidates stood between 54 and 71, whereas 20 candidates who scored 62 and above did not make it to the final list.

Similarly, among candidates in the OBC category, seven who scored between 51 and 66 were selected, but 13 candidates who scored between 61 and 69 were rejected. Among the SC/ST candidates as well, the nine successful candidates scored between 57 and 64, while four candidates who scored in the same range were rejected because they were marked less than six in their interviews. Several candidates from the Scheduled Caste category who scored between 206 and 220 in their NET, were disqualified for not scoring six marks in the personal interview.

When asked about the rules and procedures governing the selection process and evaluation of interviews, the ONGC’s corporate recruitment and placement section replied that there is “no such information in [the] records of the public authority.” Kumar, too, filed an RTI application to inquire about the recruitment process—in a response dated June 2018, the ONGC noted that the selection criteria was finalised at a meeting of the executive committee held in August 2002, and implemented by an office order dated 11 September 2003. Meanwhile, the recruitment process of another central public sector company, the Indian Oil Corporation, allots only 10 percent marks to the interview and the selection relies on the consolidated marks.

On 11 December, I emailed questions about the recruitment process and interview criteria to Shashi Shanker, the chief managing director of the ONGC, and Alka Mittal, the company’s director of human resources. Neither had responded by the time this story was published.

The ONGC has been following this recruitment process since 2003, and despite Modi’s Mann Ki Baat address and the subsequent DoPT order, there has been no change to the procedure. In September 2017, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet approved the appointment of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national spokesperson Sambit Patra as the ONGC’s independent director. But even Patra has not taken any steps to implement the government policy of discontinuing interviews.

Kumar has been doggedly raising the issue of the ONGC’s recruitment process with several authorities for over two years. As early as March 2016, the OOA brought the irregularities in the selection process to the notice of Dinesh K Sarraf, then the chief managing director of ONGC, Alok Misra, then the executive director and chief of human resources. “Sarraf had enquired about the details of the issue, but didn’t take any action to stop the faulty selection process,” Kumar told me. That month, he also wrote to the CVC, and then in October 2017, to Shanker. He did not receive a response from either.

In May 2018, Kumar wrote another letter to the CVC to draw the commissioner’s attention to the interview process being used “to sabotage the merit represented by the aggregate score.” He stated that “no room exists for transparency” under the current recruitment process because the break-up of the marks is not published, compelling candidates “to pursue RTI to understand the unnatural failure they meet with [the] ONGC.”

The OOA submitted these documents to Shanker and the ONGC’s board of directors on 24 April this year. In a subsequent letter to the board dated 14 May, Kumar wrote that recruitment process followed during 2016–18 revealed that a group of human-resource officials “have acted in collision to subvert the real merits fixed under UGC-NET” to suit their interests. Kumar requested the management to intervene and call for an inquiry into the corrupt recruitment process, but the ONGC did not take any action.

Kumar also filed complaints with the PMO and the petroleum ministry on 13 May. The ministry transferred the complaint to the ONGC, but neither the company nor the PMO responded. Kumar filed his latest complaint in this regard in July, to Sushma Rath, a joint secretary in the petroleum ministry, asking her to look into the issue. Yet again, Kumar did not receive any response.

In addition to the recruitment of junior-level officers, appointments to two top-level positions in the ONGC, including Patra’s, have also raised questions about the credibility and transparency of the recruitment process at the public sector company. The same month as Patra’s appointment, Shanker, formerly the director of technology and field services at the ONGC, was promoted to the post of chairperson and managing director.

In October 2017, Energy Watchdog—a non-governmental organisation working on issues of consumer interest in the energy sector—moved a petition before the Delhi High Court challenging Patra and Shanker’s appointments. The Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises governs the selection of independent directors in a central public sector undertaking. In July 2013, it issued a memorandum which lists seven possible criteria of experience to become eligible for appointment. The petition states that the selection committee that appointed Patra justified the decision by identifying him as a “person of eminence with [a] proven track record from industry, business or agriculture or management”—one of the listed criteria.

Energy Watchdog argued that Patra did not meet any of the criteria, and that he did not have “a proven track record in any field related to the work of [the] ONGC.” It challenged Shanker’s appointment on grounds that the ONGC’s vigilance division had suspended him in February 2015 for “gross misconduct” in handling a tender process—his suspension was later revoked, and the disciplinary proceedings against him were closed in April 2016. The petitioner had argued that Shankar’s appointment violated principles of “integrity” to be followed in appointments to public offices.

The high court dismissed the petition in November 2017. The court relied on the fact that the CVC had closed the disciplinary proceedings against Shanker, and held that Patra could be considered a “person of eminence” because he was a doctor and ran a “well-known NGO [called] Swaraj.”

Energy Watchdog has challenged the Delhi High Court’s verdict before the Supreme Court. In March 2018, the apex court sought the centre’s response on the allegations raised in the petition. The case is still pending before the court.

As the BJP spokesperson, Patra has often expressed discriminatory views against Muslims. For Muslim candidates applying to ONGC, this has become a cause for concern. “With people like Patra sitting on the board, I have lost hope of getting a fair chance,” Mohammad Shahnawaz, a postgraduate candidate who scored 196 marks in the NET but lost in the interview round, told me. “I had prepared hard for NET exam and the recruitment test for over six months. Now, I am very depressed and have lost all hope. I am sceptical of the selection process.”

Busharo Bano had applied for an E-1 level post—an entry-level job at the ONGC. Though she was rejected, Bano applied for an E-2 level post—a grade higher than E-1—at another central public sector undertaking. She cleared the test and is currently working there as a human-relations officer.“I still feel I should have got the job at ONGC,” Bano told me. “But I cleared the selection for this job and right now I am happy.”

Update: On 10 December 2018, the ONGC Officers’ Association sent a show cause notice to Hari Kumar seeking an explanation for his alleged misconduct, which included creating unrest during an association meeting held in October that year, misusing the OOA letterhead, and posting complaints in ONGC’s internal email groups. Kumar replied with a detailed response on the same day, categorically refuting all the allegations against him. On 16 December, one day after The Caravan published this article highlighting Kumar's efforts to bring the irregularities in ONGC's recruitment process to the attention of higher authorities, the OOA suspended Kumar from the association for a year. The suspension order claimed that Kumar had failed to submit his reply in the given time. On 3 January, Kumar sent a letter to George Ravi Shekaran, the association’s general secretary, stating that he had been suspended based on false allegations and was targeted for raising voice against irregularities in the functioning of ONGC. He has not yet received a response.