The grisly murder of Malegaon Additional District Collector Yeshwant Sonawane in Manmad, Maharashtra as he confronted a gang pilfering fuel from tanker trucks has sparked widespread outrage. More than 1.5 million State government employees struck work for a day, among many other protests. The atrocity draws attention once again to the scale of the great fuel robbery going on in this country. By one reckoning, 40 per cent of kerosene is stolen during transportation from depots to retail outlets. Estimates of the value of this organised racket, which also sees quite a bit of the kerosene used to adulterate diesel, exceed Rs.10,000 crore a year nationally. The fraud seems to be growing in direct correlation to the rise in fuel prices. However, official responses have mostly been weak-kneed, even after the murder of Indian Oil Corporation employee S. Manjunath in 2005. There is no satisfactory explanation for why the Petroleum Ministry gutted, instead of revamping, its own 2006 ‘marker' scheme aimed at curbing adulteration.

The scale of organised criminal gangs in this sector in Maharashtra is much larger than earlier understood — as the seizures and arrests in raids at more than 200 places reveal. Maharashtra's mafias in sand and milk are, by the very nature of those commodities, very much in the public eye. Organised crime in the petroleum trade is less easily seen. That could change with this horrible murder, as should official attitudes and responses to such racketeering. Hopefully, Maharashtra's law and order situation will also get the badly needed scrutiny. Several RTI activists and whistleblowers have been attacked and some of them murdered over the past three years. The State has also seen several atrocities against Dalits (of which Khairlanjee was just one that got any attention). A senior Member of Parliament from Marathwada stands charged with murder. In the present case of fuel diversion and adulteration, the opposition has alleged there is high political backing for the racket across the State. Generally speaking, if there is big money to be made in Maharashtra, there is a mafia that steps forward to make it. The crackdown that is on now and the arrest of all ten suspects in the murder of Mr. Sonawane are positive signs. The hope is that Union Petroleum Minister Jaipal Reddy's resolve to curb the adulteration menace will not prove short-lived. A great deal of work waits to be done on the ground, and a start can be made by acting on the Supreme Court's 2001 suggestion of an additional agency to carry out independent checks and actions in the fuel sector. Else Mr. Sonawane and others like him would have lost their lives in vain.

More In: Editorial | Opinion