Walter J. Lindner is among the more colourful diplomats based in Delhi. This pony-tailed German Ambassador to India, moves around in a bright red Ambassador car and is often photographed in Kurta and colourful stoles. On 4th July, 2021, one of his tweets went viral. He asked his followers “Have you heard about all-women petrol stations in Delhi?” and went on to talk about the BPCL Shantipath petrol pump run by 22 women in 3 shifts.
Let me tell you the story of this petrol pump and it goes two decades back to a cold winter weekend of 2001. I was driving around in my trusty old Maruti 800, when I realised I was low on fuel. I spotted a BPCL fuel station and drove in. As I pulled down my window, to speak to the attendant, it suddenly struck me that that person at the other side was a young woman smartly dressed in a BPCL uniform. Surprised, I looked around, and found that except for one more woman, the rest of the attendants were all male.
I was then working in Corporate Voice Shandwick (now called Weber Shandwick) and BPCL retail division was my client. After filling up the tank, I parked my car on the side and decided to find out more. The two girls who were working there told me that they had joined some months back and found the work quite fulfilling.
The PR hound in me smelt that this could be much bigger. On the following Monday, I took my team to the BPCL office and told them about my discovery and then made a suggestion - hire more women attendants and make this into an all women petrol pump. This will become the first and the only one of its kind in India .
The general impression about PSUs is that they are slow moving and decision making is tardy. However, my experience with BPCL’s retail division was the opposite. It was decided in that meeting itself that they will work towards it. We were discussing this in December and I suggested that we should launch a new version of this petrol pump on the International Women’s day, 8th March, 2002.
What helped was that this was a COCO pump - 'Company Owned and Company Operated' station. BPCL did not just go on a hiring mission but they also worked towards making this pump eco-friendly. They installed eco- friendly petrol dispensing machines with a vacuum driven vapour recovery system. This ensured that as vehicles are being fuelled, the petrol vapours or fumes that normally escape in the atmosphere are being sucked and returned to the storage tank.
We were taking weekly progress reports. They were not just able to hire women attendants, BPCL even appointed a female station manager and a female territory manager.
When D-Day arrived, we got a woman dignitary to inaugurate the pump. There was a large media turnout of TV, print, wire reporters and photographers. This event managed to trump all other women’s day events that happened in India on that day including the ones that involved union ministers.
Fittingly, even the chief guest took a back seat. The smart young girls of the BPCL Shantipath petrol pump near Chanakyapuri took centre stage in all media coverage. They gave bytes to the TV channels and their interviews were ones that appeared in the newspapers next day.
A press photographer from a wire agency wanted to add more colour. During the inauguration, a burly biker had come in a Royal Enfield Classic to fill up fuel. He persuaded the rider to give up his bike for a few minutes. The photo that he took was one of classic woman power - he put one of our Shandwick girl team members on that big bike and got a female BPCL petrol attendant to fill up the tank. This wire agency photo got splashed in newspapers across the country.
It will be twenty years since that monster of an inauguration. It is not uncommon to find women attendants at fuel stations across India. However, the legend of India’s first all women fuel station only continues to grow and get new fans like the German Ambassador Walter J. Lindner.
Senjam Raj Sekhar is the head of Global Communications at Mobile Premier League, an esports and gaming platform with operations in India, United States and Indonesia. He has led communications mandates for companies across multiple geographies including UK, USA, Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa and South Asia.