India oil minister slammed for plan to shut petrol stations at night

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's opposition on Monday poured scorn on an oil ministry proposal to close petrol pumps at night, the latest in a series of ideas evoking India's austere past as the government grapples with a jarring fall in the value of the rupee.

The rupee has plunged almost 20 per cent since May, partly on concerns about the world's third-largest current account deficit, prompting government steps such as a ban on the free import of flat-screen TVs and curbs on buying hard currency.

Oil Minister Veerappa Moily on Monday appeared to back away from the proposal to close petrol stations from 8pm to 8am to lower consumption, after a public outcry and criticism by politicians ranging from the hard-right to communist parties.

"This will only hurt the country, and there will be no benefit," said Mr Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister and senior member of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "These are steps that will lead to more panic about the mismanagement of the economy in the country. I do not know why a responsible government minister would talk like this."

Mr Moily first floated the idea on Saturday, saying he was working on the details as part of a plan to save US$25 billion (S$31.9 billion) from the oil import bill and strengthen the rupee.

"We are going through difficult times. We need to discipline ourselves. People will have to tighten their belt and some austerity measures have to be taken without affecting economic activity," he said in comments to the Indian Express newspaper.

In letters sent to the Prime Minister and the finance ministry, Mr Moily proposed a series of measures, such as a US$2.6 million public relations campaign, including "street theatre", to promote lower fuel usage.

Following the outcry, an official at the Prime Minister's office said the petrol pump suggestion would not be taken up.

The main proposal in Mr Moily's plan was to import more oil from Iran, which accepts payment for its crude in rupees to avoid financial sanctions imposed by the United States.

India has sharply cut oil imports from Iran since US sanctions were imposed last year, and believes it has some headroom to import more without angering Washington.

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