Getting off the starting block

So the government has finally approved three Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemical Investment Regions (PCPIRs). Now comes the difficult part. Who is going to undertake mega investments at a time at a time when the global economic outlook is uncertain, demand for key chemicals has crumbled and not many are willing to stick their neck out to make an optimistic forecast.

The three favoured locations for PCPIRs are Dahej in Gujarat, Nayachar in West Bengal and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Of the three, I think only Dahej is going to come up in the near future. And that is because the hub include ONGC’s planned cracker and derivatives complex which has been in the pipeline for a few years now.

Hindustan Petroleum Corp (HPCL) is to be the anchor tenant at the Visakhapatnam hub with a refinery and petrochemical complex. But the outlook for this project is uncertain as one of the partner, Mittal Investment, appears to have backed out. The other partners in the project are Gail and Total.

The Nayachar hub has been described as the West Bengal chief minister’s “showpiece project“. But after the Tata debacle in Singur, it is doubtful if companies will queue up to invest in the state.

The approval for the PCPIRs comes barely a week after China’s announcement of a huge stimulus plan for the country’s refining and petrochemical sectors.

The Chinese government has promised construction of large-scale projects such as refineries and crackers. Details are still sketchy and it is not clear at this stage how many of the projects will be new and related to core petrochemicals.

However, I am confident in the Chinese government’s ability to push through investments through Sinopec and PetroChina. Somehow, I can’t see that happening in India.

If China’s plan includes a lot of petrochemical capacities the country’s dependence on imports will decline rapidly. At the same time, India’s need for imports will grow going by current projections.

I was at the Plastindia trade show earlier this month and I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone quite confident about the long term prospects of the Indian plastics industry despite a disastrous Q4 2008.

I suspect the optimism was party due to the sharp recovery in prices in December and January.

Agriculture and infrastructure are expected to be tomorrow’s growth drivers. Farmers have been making good money and are expected to spend more while the government is allocating more funding for agriculture including investing in irrigation projects that would support demand for pipes.

The old argument of India’s low per capita consumption as an indicator of the country’s potential was still doing the rounds. And so were projections of the country emerging as the third largest polymer consumer in the world by 2012. I really doubt this will happen as Indian demand is currently only around 5.5m tonnes. To reach the No 3 slot, demand would have to more than double to 12m tonnes over the next four years.

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