The road from Tinsukia to Namrup is bumpy but with lush green tea estates on either side it is worth a journey. The visually appealing images of tea estate workers plucking leaves for the second flush negates whatever meagre trouble the body endures on the road. This is akin to the trajectory the State public sector enterprise Assam Petro-Chemicals (APL) has undertaken over a 52-year-period now. Bumpy but worth it for more reasons than one. For decades, it has held aloft the flag of the State PSE high.
It was unusually quiet when Asom Barta visited the imposing complex of the company. The 500 tonnes per day (TPD) methanol plant project, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2023, was shut to undergo a routine maintenance exercise. But this silence could not overarch the buzz which the company is making in the methanol and formalin markets in Eastern India and its neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. The latest consignment of formalin to Bangladesh was flagged off by Assam Chief Minister Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma on July 1. The Chief Minister, while complimenting the efforts of APL,said that Assam was getting closer to becoming the major exporter of petrochemicals.
“The company is a representation of our State’s industrial scenario. A tribute to the hard work of its indigenous people. Imagine a chemical factory striving and growing despite all odds over five decades,” said Bikul Deka, the chairman of APL while talking to this reporter in his Guwahati office. He said that APL is a viable entity that is proving its worth in a competitive industrial scenario. “We are completely dependent on external factors. Our raw material is natural gas whose price is decided internationally, and our finished products methanol and formalin always compete with imports.”
He said that timber companies in and around the districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh were major customers of APL but the Supreme Court judgment of 1996 which banned timber industry was a major setback to the company. As if this was not enough, the closure of a DMT plant of the public sector undertaking Bongaigaon Refinery Petrochemicals Limited in 2000 also hampered profitability.
From a modest beginning of 21 TPD Methanol and 37 TPD formalin, APL today boasts a production capacity of 600 TPD Methanol and 125 TPD formalin, while a 200 TPD plant in Boitamari in Bongaigaon will be commissioned by December 2023.
“Ours is an employee-driven company. Some of the machines which are three decades old are running smoothly, thanks to the dedication of our immense human resource talents,” said Rajnish Gogoi, the Managing Director while talking to this reporter. The MD is on deputation from Oil India Limited, the biggest shareholder of the company with 48.79% equity. “I came from a Central PSU culture to a State PSU. It has indeed been a wonderful experience to adjust and learn from this eco-system.”
S B Paw, Marketing Manager, APL, who had worked with multinationals like Nestle, and Shell endorsed his MD. “After working for these MNCs for 11 years, I felt it was time to give back to my State. I feel if PSUs are professionally managed, they can sustain and compete with any private entity,” he said.
The MD has set his sights higher. “We have now initiated a 15-year period plan called “Perspective 2038” which will define our trajectory and make us a future-ready company. I am thankful to the Government of Assam for the support that we have from them.”
Gogoi said that the biggest advantage for APL is the availability of natural gas in nearby oil fields. “For me, petrochemicals are the future of innovation. Creating innovative products will add value to society and civilization,” he said, adding that innovative youth will find their true calling in this company.
Despite challenges, the hands-on philosophy of the MD is working wonders for APL. “It is in the quality and purity of our product that we command prestige in the market despite a formidable competition from imported products. Our methanol has up to 99.99% purity. We have set a benchmark which others cannot compete with.”
One of APL customers is the Dhaka-based Grind Tech Limited. “We had purchased our first consignment from APL in July. We are pleased at the way the chairman and the MD established their rapport with us. Though it is too early to say, but we have enjoyed dealing with them hitherto,” Saiful Hasan Riku, the CEO of the company said in his response to an email query from Asom Barta.
Paw said that APL products are in demand because of their quality. “Since methanol is extensively used in the pharmaceutical sectors, quality is of paramount importance. The word of mouth for APL products is spread across India and various sectors. This has helped our foreign buyers to choose us over others,” he said.