Related Articles
Forward article link
Share PDF with colleagues

ONGC's lucky mascot

India's multinational oil and gas firm bought its first offshore rig in 1973. Since then, the Sagar Samrat has become a stalwart for the country's oil output

In the early 1950s, when India was still wrestling with post-independence teething troubles, finding oil was urgent.

Prophets of doom-particularly those among western experts-were many, all too ready to write off Indian sedimentary basins as devoid of hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) was set up in August 1956 as a national oil company amid this widespread scepticism.

The organisation set about disproving the many gloomy predictions, and made its first discovery in Cambay in September 1958. It followed up with another find in Ankleshwar in May 1960. The hat-trick was completed when oil was struck near Rudrasagar in Assam in December of the same year.

India needed oil, desperately. Oil-product consumption was increasing rapidly, as the country's economy shifted up a gear. ONGC had drawn up an ambitious 10-year plan that envisaged reaching a production of 10m tonnes (about 200,000 barrels a day), with 4.5m tonnes coming from offshore.

And with that offshore exploration became a necessity.

Heading deep

The Bombay High-a promising field under between 260ft and 300ft of water off the coast of Mumbai-had already been identified as a potential reservoir, but ONGC and its Soviet consultants lacked the equipment and expertise to make use of it.

It doesn't sound like much today, but in the 1950s 60ft was very much considered deep water, and only a handful of Western oil firms had the technology for that type of drilling.

A decade later-as the technology got more and more advanced-drilling as deep as 1,000ft and beyond became commonplace but that was some way off.

Fast-rising oil consumption at home forced the US to explore the tough Alaskan fields while the UK was about to start exploration in the North Sea.

Newer offshore technologies were rapidly being introduced. By the end of the 1960s, nearly 200 offshore rigs were in operation worldwide.

But that wasn't enough to keep pace with growing demand-so the world was in dire need of offshore rigs.

As for the majors, they were interested only in hunting big finds, so didn't show a lot of interest in India at that time.

A few small Western independents spied the opportunity and offered to take on exploration of Bombay High, with a number of hidden costs associated with getting involved.

Help from afar

Mitsubishi, the Japanese firm, and Offshore International-at the time credited with having designed the world's first jack-up drilling rig in 1954-together offered to build one at what they considered a competitive price.

ONGC's chairman Leslie Johnson studied the proposal, and a committee was accordingly set up to look into its pros and cons and decide on how to take things forward.

But the committee seemed to dither on its choice between jack-up or semi-submersible.

Johnson lost his patience, took the matter into his own hands and decreed in favour of a jack-up.

It was a significant development for India-and for the company, though Johnson had left office before the decision had been finalised.

His successor, Balwant Singh Negi, was the first internally appointed chairman-albeit promoted in an acting capacity.

A geophysicist from the Geological Survey of India, Negi was widely known for his hesitation when decisions needed to be made.

"Negi was a stickler for rules and regulations and lacked the aggressive drive of leadership and qualities of effective man management so very essential in giving proper direction to a vibrant organisation," wrote Iqbal Farooqi in his book The Story of ONGC.

It was an altogether different Negi, however, who appeared so resolute in handling the delicate and complex negotiations with the Japanese, and it wasn't long before progress was being made.

Investing in the future

In February 1971 the Indian government placed an order with Mitsubishi for a self-propelled jack-up drilling rig, costing the then-princely sum of INR125m (then about $17m).

Though the delivery period was set at two years, Negi quickly stationed two top-ranking engineers, HGT Woodward and AK Mitra, in Hiroshima, Japan, to oversee and monitor the technological and economic progress of construction.

Soon, SM Malhotra, SC Upadhyay, SM Kukreja, UA Paul, DS Nandal and many other young engineers joined to learn the ins and outs of the rig.

As massive blocks of steel were being welded to give shape to the rig, things were getting incredibly frenetic back in India in anticipation of the next stages the project's development.

French seismic company Compagnie Générale de Géophysique (CGG) had closed in on 10 possible drilling locations-all in water depths ranging from 250-300ft.

Next, a marine-survey wing at the French organisation was established to study the tide, wave and wind conditions of the area.

The seabed survey was the most vexing problem, as the clay that sat on the ocean floor was about 30ft deep, making it difficult to analyse with any sort of accuracy.

KS Shankar, of the drilling directorate, was in charge of the well's planning and of developing the wildcat.

This involved producing images of the sub-surface conditions.

Downhole pressures, temperatures, type of formation-all these were anticipated according to the rough geophysical data given by CGG.

Next, a crew had to be assembled. In May 1973, about 50 roughnecks, derrickmen and roustabouts came on board to form the team that would take the vessel into its next chapter.

Progress had been slower than anticipated in Japan, and the Sagar Samrat was already about six months behind schedule at that stage.

Heading home

In March 1973, Samrat underwent a successful sea trial on the shores of Hiroshima, and on 3 April, it set sail for what would be its new home.

The voyage was long and arduous as the vessel moved at little over a snail's pace-travelling at just five knots an hour over the duration of its time at sea.

The journey was also broken up by a 10-day scheduled stopover at Singapore.

After 54 long days at sea, Samrat arrived in India, and the crew was quickly put on a supply vessel that was headed for Bombay Port.

Virender Kumar Verma, project manager of the newly constituted Bombay Offshore Project, was there to greet them.

Special sanctions had already been put in place to provide the weary crew with air tickets to get them back home as soon as possible.

Their journey had ended, but Samrat's had only just begun.


The first well to be drilled was given the geological name H-1-1.

Sagar Samrat reached the location in late January, 1974. The well was spudded in early February, and drilling continued without complication.

Sixteen days later, at the break of dawn, oil gushed out-at 500 pounds per square inch (psi) and with a gravity of 43.6° API.

The associated gas was flared.

Two equally good oil shows were encountered at 1,400 and 1,600 metres (4,600ft and 5,250ft) and the drilling continued up to the target depth of 2,000 metres.

It was completed on 8 April, 1974, a day before Negi was to retire.

Laxmi Lal Bhandari-considered a pioneering geologist who had been involved in India's first move into oil in the 1950s-double-checked every detail of the find before sending good news and good tidings to chairman Negi.

The chairman was sceptical and asked Bhandari if the discovery would compare with the success recently seen at the Ankleshwar find.

Bhandari was somewhat conservative when he said that it was around about twice its size.

But as more wells were drilled, it quickly became apparent that India had unearthed a gold mine.

Moving forward

NB Prasad followed Negi to become ONGC's head honcho.

The new chairman was given a virtually blank cheque and asked to develop the Bombay High field as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

After two dry wells, the fourth turned out to be a big gusher.

On 10 April 1975, prime minister Indira Gandhi landed on Samrat in an Indian Air Force helicopter.

She climbed right up to the rig floor, opened a valve and saw first-hand the hose pumping oil to the Jawaharlal Nehru tanker.

The discovery of Bombay High as a field of significant potential became a landmark event-a major development in India's economic and energy history-and Sagar Samrat has been considered a lucky mascot for the country's oil sector ever since.

The vessel's image soon found its way onto the face of the one rupee note. The rig was immortalised and many across India know it by sight.

Since it arrived in the country, Sagar Samrat has lived up to its name as the Emperor of the Seas. It has, over its 28-year lifespan, drilled 130 wells to a total depth of 0.89m feet.

It has been instrumental in discovering 14 major structures and adding more than 3bn tonnes of oil and gas reserves. Even in its retirement, Sagar Samrat has proved functional: until recently, it was used for living quarters and power-backup facilities.

It is now being converted into a mobile offshore production unit. Soon enough, it will be deployed at the WO-16 cluster fields-getting back to work in the familiar surroundings of the Bombay (Mumbai) High.

Vast developments: India's energy infrastructure today
Also in this section
Total defies the odds
14 February 2020
Succession of acquisitions and project ramp-ups help strengthen the company’s portfolio in a tough environment for the sector
US heavyweights feel the squeeze
11 February 2020
Financial results suffer as erratic global politics and abundant supply sends energy prices tumbling
Financial institutions go green
7 February 2020
Lenders shift towards cleaner investments to align with Paris Agreement targets