During the past two weeks, the country has witnessed around six explosions in households caused by liquid petroleum gas (LPG) as cooking fuel. At least one person has died as a result of exploding LPG cylinders.
Unfortunately, up to today, the public has not been informed as to what exactly is causing the cylinders to explode. Whether it was the users’ fault or that of the manufacturer, or damage caused during transit is not known.
What makes these accidents scarier is the fact that today, over four million households countrywide use LPG as cooking fuel. This means a large number of families are at risk at any given moment.
In the Colombo city - where over 30% of the country’s population resides - the inner city or slum dwellers live in 65,000 slums, 51% in under-served settlements and 21% of the children below five are undernourished. Most of this housing lacks basic amenities as running water and proper toilet facilities, though most have electricity.
Today the numbers living in slums have increased, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic where large sections of the population lost their employment and fell into a category of persons who could be described as the ‘new poor’.
Most of these homes too use LPG gas as cooking fuel. A gas explosion (God forbid) in these dwellings in areas euphemistically termed ‘wattes’ or heavily populated slum-like clusters, is a calamity waiting to happen. The houses tightly packed one to another, the large numbers of people including children living in these dwellings would leave large numbers dead and or injured. The result would be calamitous.
Unfortunately, the police investigations into LP gas-related explosions, do not seem to be have progressed into the causes behind the explosions. Despite charges made by well-informed persons in authoritative positions that the composition of gas per cylinder has been changed sans permission of the relevant authorities, police investigations do not appear to have considered the charges.
Even more surprisingly, police have summoned the whistle-blower to present him/herself for questioning... rather not the accused.
Making matters worse for consumers, the LPG market is dominated by a particular company/brand, which enjoys a near monopoly status countrywide. Therefore, whatever the shortcomings and defects in the gas cylinders, consumers have no choice but to continue purchasing a possibly defective product, even at risk to life and limb.
Adding fuel to fire; so-to-say, and despite the continuing explosion of gas cylinders at homes across the city, the company has whacked consumers with a hefty price increase for a cylinder of gas. The cost of a 15 kg cylinder of gas which cost Rs.1,500/- in August this year was increased to Rs. 2,600/- late last month!
Oh tempora, oh mores… in countries across the globe when a product is found to be defective or has caused damage, the company concerned recalls the product and pays damages to its affected customers. In Sri Lanka, the gas company seems to be a law unto itself. Despite distributing a faulty product, as the explosions have shown, the company with government compliance has whacked consumers with a hefty price increase (stated above) for what could be a life-threatening product.
There is also a chronic shortage of LPG in the country. In many instances when scarce stocks do reach points of distribution, filled canisters are spirited away from public view and sold only to regular customers who make purchases of other goods from the distributing points concerned. To make matters worse, canisters of company ‘X’ are not permitted to be switched to those of company ‘Y’. Switching to a different LPG provider requires consumers to reinvest in cylinders of that particular company.
In these days of pay cuts and wage freezes, making the change is just not possible. But as character Alice, in Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was wont to say’ things get curiouser and curiouser. Gas as a form of energy; was pioneered by the ‘Ceylon Gas and Water Company’, which was charged with powering tramlines as well as street lighting in Colombo city.
Subsequently the company provided Colombo-based households with cooking gas via underground gas pipes.Yet, even in those pioneering days, one hardly heard gas explosions resulting in death and destruction to ordinary citizens. So what ails the modern LPG providers? Was in fact a change to the standard composition of LP gas which led to the explosions? Whatever the reason, the government owes it to the public to fully investigate the accusations and ensure peoples’ lives are not imperiled.
If the companies have in fact tampered with standard specifications, they need to be brought to book, their licenses cancelled and made an example of.