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Interview with Ajay Sardana

Ajay Sardana
Ajay Sardana
Chairman-NECCP; President & Head-Petchem Industry Affairs
Reliance Industries Limited
Reliance Industries Limited

Golden era beckons industry as India braces for unprecedent growth journey
Ajay Sardana holds a prominent position as the president & head of Petchem-Industry Affairs at Reliance Industries, a global leader in petrochemicals.

He also serves as a director of BVM Overseas Ltd., Sintex Industries Limited, and SRTEPC while also holding the esteemed position of chairman of the ICC National Expert Committee on Chemicals & Petrochemicals (NECCP) and the co-chair of leading Indian trade association, Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).

With over 30 years of experience in the textile and chemical industry, Ajay Sardana brings a wealth of expertise to his current roles even as his professional journey provided him with extensive global exposure, including stints in Türkiye and Indonesia.

Throughout his career, he has been honoured with numerous awards and accolades for significant contributions towards sustainability. In 2018, Ajay Sardana was recognised as one of the Most Influential Sustainability Leaders of India, underscoring his commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

His dedication to sustainability has gained international recognition, including the prestigious Yale Sustainability Leadership Program award for the best project in 2018. He was also honoured with the Golden Peacock award for sustainability in the same year, further cementing his reputation as a leader in sustainable practices.

Ajay Sardana, who holds master’s degrees in Textiles from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, and in Business Administration from Malaysia, before joining Reliance Industries, gained valuable experience working across several divisions at Grasim Industries and Indo Rama Synthetics.

His multifaceted career and dedication to sustainability has established Ajay Sardana as a respected leader in the petrochemical industry even if his ongoing efforts to drive innovation and promote sustainable practices highlight his unwavering commitment to shaping a more environmentally conscious and socially responsible future.

Fibre2Fashion caught up with Ajay Sardana recently for an exclusive interaction, to delve deeper into his views and thoughts, and know what is in his scheme of things for the Indian petrochemical industry, following his appointment as the chairman of the ICC National Expert Committee on Chemicals & Petrochemicals.

Here are the excerpts from the insightful discussion:

Congrats on your appointment as chairman of ICC’s National Expert Committee on Petrochemical Initiatives! Could you summarise the main priorities for your term?

Thank you! Our primary focus is on fostering further development of the Indian petrochemical industry.
To start with, the committee wants to have a level playing field in the petrochemical sector and our key priorities include addressing unfair competition, tackling duty anomalies (for foreign players), and advocating for increased import duties to safeguard against dumping. 
Additionally, we should aim to promote sustainability, innovation, skill development, competitiveness, and collaboration within the sector.
Currently, certain countries benefit from government subsidies, creating unfair competition, and implementing a PLI-like scheme, we believe, could address this disparity.
Duty anomalies need urgent attention even as we aim to represent industry concerns to the government, particularly regarding feedstock subsidies and dumping issues as import challenges and dumping are threatening the sector. Increasing import duties have become crucial to prevent cheaper goods from saturating the market and promote domestic growth.

Your perspective on the current status of the industry?

The Indian petrochemical industry is experiencing substantial growth. Currently valued at $180-$190 billion and projected to hit $300 billion in next few years. It ranks sixth globally and fourth in Asia for chemical production, contributing 13 per cent to India’s total exports, and serving over 175 countries.
There are some challenges nonetheless like heavy reliance on imported feedstock, inadequate infrastructure, and environmental concerns. Issues related to transportation and storage facilities hamper efficiency, while the existing skill gap calls for a trained workforce for handling advanced technologies.
However, government initiatives like ‘Make in India’ have attracted significant foreign investments while global entities continue to seek India’s competitive edge for diversifying the supply chains.
Overcoming challenges by strengthening infrastructure and investing in research and development (R&D) will further accelerate growth.

From a critical standpoint, what do you perceive as the top challenges for the industry at present?

There is a need to establish India as a leading chemicals and petrochemicals manufacturing hub. This can only happen when we address the challenges being faced by the industry like rising import dependency in several products like Styrene, Phenol, Acetic Acid, and others. Second, there is a dire need to address the factor costs issues being faced by the industry and government support on the feedstock subsides which are hurting the margins of domestic players. 
There is also an urgent need to revive the PCPIR (Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Investment Region) which will encourage the domestic players and foreign players to come and invest in India and help the country grow as a manufacturing hub in the coming years.
Lastly, there is a need to tackle the challenge requiring transitioning to cleaner technologies and improving the domestic infrastructure.

What strategies do you intend to implement to increase awareness on sustainability?

Multiple initiatives are already underway to address the issue of sustainability and bring more awareness, both within the industry and amongst the people in general.
To give an example, at Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai, a reverse vending machine has been installed, which facilitates PET bottle disposal, incentivising devotees with coupons, thereby fostering a culture of recycling and behavioural change.
Thanks to such efforts, India today stands out as a global leader, recycling 85-90 per cent of PET bottles, which has also helped generate employment opportunities for many. 
Notably, the jacket worn by the Prime Minister at the Bharat Tex event this year was crafted from recycled PET bottles, highlighting the tangible progress made in this direction.
We aim to further increase the awareness on sustainability through exhibitions, various initiatives, and implementing global best practices. Collaboration with industry experts and training institutions will also go a long way in promoting sustainability.
The upcoming recycling exhibition in July at Bharat Mandapam organised by Chemicals & Petrochemicals Manufacturers Association (CPMA), is expected to play a pivotal role in raising awareness levels further. Such kind of events provide platforms for recyclers, processors, and technology experts to display innovations and share knowledge to further the cause of sustainability.

Any special initiative for the SMEs, given their distinct set of challenges, particularly financial constraints, which could potentially hinder sustainability efforts?

In the upstream sector, such as polymer manufacturing, it is the big players who dominate the scene. Conversely, downstream sectors like plastic and product manufacturing, along with polyethylene production, host numerous SMEs
We, as a committee, would try to make sure the availability of raw materials to our user sector, many of whom are SMEs.
It is really heartening to note that the SMEs are increasingly focusing on sustainability, thanks to numerous government initiatives. Importantly, many sustainability efforts require minimal investment, primarily necessitating a mindset shift to drive changes. What’s more, startups these days are also doing a wonderful job in offering affordable solutions, helping the SMEs in their sustainable endeavours.
At the ICC, we actively promote sustainability through seminars and conferences, particularly targeting the SMEs. Through various efforts, we educate SMEs on the best practices observed by the larger industries, consistently motivating them to embrace sustainability practices.
We also implement various strategies from time to time to help the SMEs along the value chain in enhancing competitiveness along with sustainability.

How do you plan to leverage the collective wealth of expertise and experience to chart a new course for the industry and how do you foresee the committee influencing policy decisions to create a favourable environment for growth?

As chairman of the ICC National Expert Committee on Petrochemical Initiatives, I and the committee, aim to utilise the experience and knowledge base of the members to support the industry body in addressing the key challenges effectively, be it pitching for policies that incentivise domestic efficiency and technological advancements to strengthen the industry’s competitiveness, exploring Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with major petrochemical consumer countries to broaden market access for Indian exports, implementing Quality Control Orders (QCOs), recommending countervailing duties (CVDs) to create a level playing field for all.
One can adopt numerous ways to influence policy decisions, like commissioning research to analyse industry challenges and opportunities, inviting committee members with relevant expertise to provide testimony before parliamentary committees or government agencies considering policy changes impacting the petrochemical industry, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including government ministries, industry associations, academia, and environmental NGOs to build consensus and highlight shared benefits of the proposed policies.
It can also be done through launching awareness campaigns to educate the public about the industry’s importance to the Indian economy while also engaging with the media to share perspectives on industry issues and policy proposals to generate wider public discussion and influence the policymakers.
However, I would like to add, the government is extremely supportive and is doing an outstanding job to ensure further growth and development of the petrochemical industry.

What metrics or indicators do you plan to use to evaluate impact and effectiveness of the ICC’s initiatives?

We can use both quantitative and qualitative metrics. Quantitative metrics could include measuring production of key petrochemical products, investment in the sector, export value, and India’s global market share while qualitative metrics involve tracking new project initiations, industry surveys, and sustainability practices.
Reduced energy consumption, lower waste generation, and increased recycling signify progress towards cleaner production processes and increasing sustainability.
Qualitative indicators encompass the adoption of sustainability reporting frameworks and awards for sustainable practices even as enhanced competitiveness is reflected in reduced production costs and meeting international quality standards while import/export ratio trends showcase industry growth and competitiveness.
These metrics offer a comprehensive assessment of the initiatives, aiding in effective decision-making and strategy refinement for the industry’s growth and development.

Looking ahead, what do you perceive the biggest opportunities for the industry?

Opportunities, particularly in sectors like textiles and petrochemicals are simply immense! With the government’s commitment to quality control order and infrastructure upgrades, industry growth is projected to be robust, potentially hitting double-digit figures.
Addressing industry challenges is also essential, aligned with initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and Viksit Bharat 2047. After elections with a new government in place, we anticipate time-bound agendas to be introduced, aiming for India’s development by the 100th anniversary of India’s independence, and we firmly believe, the petrochemical industry will play a pivotal role in realising this ambitious vision.
India today stands at the threshold of unprecedented growth as we move steadfastly towards transitioning from a developing to a developed country. While challenges are inevitable, we at ICC are optimistic about the industry’s prospects.
As the chairman of National Expert Committee on Chemical and Petrochemical, I as well as the committee, would focus towards fostering collaboration between the industry and government, ensuring unity in our journey towards growth as we strongly believe that the industry is on the brink of a prosperous era, and our goal revolves around inclusivity, ensuring that everyone is part of this promising trajectory.
Today, all our initiatives are driven by a commitment to prioritise the interests of the nation as we believe when India prospers, we all benefit, and through collaboration and sincere efforts, we can navigate any challenges to realise the shared vision of a thriving nation and a thriving industry.
Interviewer: Deepankar Shyam
Published on: 21/05/2024

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.