By J.A.A.S Ranasinghe
In light of the whistleblowing by Thushan Gunawardena, former Executive Director of Consumer Affairs Authority, it would be quite appropriate and interesting to revisit the LPG scandal and ascertain how intelligently the authorities have handled the above scandal for the overall well being of the consumers and the government. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is known as a clean and safe source of energy, wherein safety is of paramount importance from the time of landing up to the point of delivery to the customer. It is in this context that an attempt is being made to ascertain whether this cardinal safety has been observed in practice by the two gas companies.
New LPG cylinders with new seal
Addressing a press conference recently (December 6), State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna said the resumption of domestic LPG supply would take place almost immediately, with a shrink bundling film (polythene seal) covering the cylinder valve, which, in my view, is ludicrous if not idiotic, to say the least. The minister, as well as the CAA, would have thought that this measure could allay the fears entertained by consumers, and it would be a solid guarantee against the explosion of gas cylinders.
The minister is sadly mistaken, and it appears that he has been taken for an expensive ride again by the two companies, Litro and Laugfs. As far as consumers are concerned, it is only a sugar coated pill and a cosmetic exercise, which does not inspire confidence in the consumers at large.
It is now a well-established fact that the arbitrary change of the composition of propane and butane from its time-tested ratio of 20 to 80 to 50 to 50, had been made by the two companies, with a view to maximise profits, at the cost of life, limb and property of the consumer. Does the State Minister genuinely think that he could allay consumer fears by introducing this bundling film seal? Certainly not.
The most sensible action would have been the introduction of a sticker on the body of the cylinder more prominently, preferably in a luminous colour, indicating the composition of the gas, propane 20 and butane 80, the percentage of ethyl mercaptan (commonly known as methanethiol) enabling the consumers to identify any leaks by the odorant, the batch number of the product or refilling with the date and a certification that the gas cylinder has been subjected to rigorous quality assurance parameters, before they are dispatched to the market. In the absence of these salient assurances, consumers would not gain confidence and repose any trust in the product.
The advantage of this novel method is that the consumer would be in an authoritative position to lodge a claim against the gas supplier, in the event of a gas explosion. On the other hand, the gas companies would take precautionary measures to ensure that the final product is hundred percent clean and safe.
Testing one per 100 gas cylinders
Any layman would realise that the testing of one gas cylinder per every 100 cylinders is not a foolproof method, and it does not in any way ensure the safety of the consumer. A safety conscious customer is always vigilant as to whether the gas cylinder he or she buys is hundred percent safe. I am unable to fathom as to why the Minister imposed such a ludicrous condition, whereas he should have imposed tacit and absolute compliance to have rigid safety testing at every stage of the production process. I believe that both products are ISO 9000 certified as well as having fulfilled safety standard certifications, and putting in place such a rigid quality assurance mechanism in the production line does not require rocket science.
A simple question would suffice to emphasise the absurdity of the matter: Would passengers risk their lives to travel in planes, if only one plane out of 100 is tested before use? What I gather is that the two gas companies have been cunning enough to work out an escape route using the Minister and the CAA. What is hilarious is that this insistence has come from the Minister and the CAA, and this illogical compliance would be a manna from heaven for the two companies, to abdicate their responsibility in the event of a calamity. This obnoxious requirement would no doubt raise suspicions regarding the quality of the gas cylinder, under the new system. Testing one cylinder out of 100 amounts to an infirm and ad hoc substitute, for what should have been a 100 percent final quality test. Similar explosions are inevitable if the proposed testing criterion is allowed.
According to a Sinhala newspaper, the total number of domestic gas explosions has exceeded 400, and the consumers would undoubtedly demand compensation for personnel and property damages, such as kitchen utensils and equipment. Not only the Minister in charge of Consumer Affairs, but also some of the key ministers have openly declared that it is the sole responsibility of the two gas companies to compensate the consumers. Civil organisation, National Movement for the Protection of Consumer Rights (NMPCR), has commenced an agitation campaign for the compensation of victims. Consequently, the two gas companies have an inalienable duty to compensate the victims without delay.
But it appears that gas companies are attempting to shirk this responsibility by denying payment. Former BASL President, U.R.L de. Silva, commenting to a popular TV news channel, expressed that the victims of gas explosions could seek justice through district courts, claiming compensation. He is claimed to be a consultant to the Minister of Justice, and we are unsure whether merely expressing the legal opinion is the stance the government should take. In such an event, the poor consumer will have to recourse to litigation to claim compensation, which is a cumbersome process. At a time when the poor consumer is making every effort to dull pangs of hunger due to the skyrocketing cost of living, this will be an additional burden on the hapless victims.
Litro Gas, which has a rich history as a market leader, has so far not expressed their intention to deny compensation. If compensation claims are denied, this unresolved situation would create unrest in the country. Consequently, they have an inviolable duty to honour these claims, without causing any embarrassment to the government, at this juncture. It should be mentioned here that this company has already created a precedent by paying compensation to the value of Rs 185,000, to my neighbour, a respected gentleman and owner of Multi Kitchens (Pvt) Ltd., living in Kandewatta Road, Nawala, for damages to the house caused by a gas explosion a few years ago, which destroyed his roof, pantry cupboards, kitchen utensils and other paraphernalia. It is fervently hoped that Litro Gas would honour the claims of the victims without hesitation, in keeping with the precedents already set.
On November 30, the President appointed an eight-member expert committee to investigate the spate of gas cylinder explosions and fires, and recommend broader solutions to arrest this unhealthy trend. In the absence of any stipulated terms of reference, the so-called expert committee has the latitude to propose a wide range of remedial measures. As a matter of priority, it should be ascertained why this change in the composition of LPG, that has already led to fatal injuries and damages to property, had been made. Surely, if the expert committee carefully studies the minutes of board meetings and management committee meetings, the exact truth would come to light. It may be possible that the two gas companies obtained the consent of the ministry to switch to the new ratio. If this was an arbitrary decision on the part of the two companies, it should be highlighted.
At the very inception of the proceedings, the eight-member committee acted like CID officers, bullying the victims, which showed a degree of bias towards the two gas companies. A member was seen ridiculing to the maximum, a woman who happened to be a teacher, while questioning her. She retorted arrogantly that she ‘did not come from Thumpane’ and the committee learnt a bitter lesson. The committee should bear in mind that the general public expects a fair and independent perspective of the gas explosions that have now exceeded the 400th mark. TV footage displayed explosions of regulators and corroded gas burners, which was mainly due to the excessive pressure and heat of the new gas mix.
The committee will have to be extremely mindful that their observations and findings are keenly observed by the public. They should exercise care and be vigilant as the slightest irresponsible utterance or behaviour would give the victims the impression of a strong bias towards the two gas companies.
It would do well for the expert committee to make field visits to hardware stores and ascertain whether the recommended hoses, regulators and accessories are available in the market. I casually made inquiries in my neighbourhood whether SLS certified gas appliances are available, and the ridicule I was subjected to cannot be recounted here. It is well known that floodgates are open for imported inferior LPG accessories, without any control by the Customs and the port.
The chairman and senior members of Litro Gas made a valiant effort to conceal the change in the composition of gas, which claimed a life and caused burn injuries in many. Damages to property have been enormous. However, it is sad that the Minister in charge of Consumer Affairs, has not yet lodged a complaint with the CID, requesting an investigation into this high-handed criminal negligence. The whole Board of Directors, and the officers who misled the public at media briefings, should be arrested, prosecuted and criminally punished.
The minister’s revelations that there had been no regulation of domestic gas since it was first introduced in 1960 through CAA and SLSI were vested with this responsibility. Hence the dearth of a regulatory mechanism appeared to be a key issue. According to whistleblower Thushan Gunawardena (TG) the change in LPG composition had taken place during the tenure of former Litro Gas Chairman Anil Koswatta, a nominee of Viyathmaga.
A cursory glance of the Consumer Protection Act reveals that the Act is clothed with enormous powers for the CAA to deal with the gas companies. When consumers took their cylinders to the dealers, they refused to accept them, which is a clear contravention of the regulations. What has CAA done to intervene on behalf of the consumers? Absolutely nothing. Though the CAA has adequate ‘teeth’, it appears that there is a paucity of adroit officers the calibre of the former Executive Director, TG, in its cadre.
Square pegs of Viyathmaga in round holes
When analysing the poor performances of statutory boards and corporations, it is obvious that appointment of Viyathmaga members, as chairmen and directors, have been the bane of operational, administrative and financial growth in most of the institutions. His successor, after Koswatta was ousted, was another Viyathmaga nominee. From the day he assumed duties, he was critical of the performance of his predecessor, neglecting his fiduciary duties. He did not have the audacity to attend media briefings to provide authoritative answers at the initial stage, and junior offices of the management hierarchy gave misleading answers when questioned. The Chairman appeared to be immature, lacking extensive industrial exposure, with poor leadership traits to lead a team of technocrats in this specialised field. No wonder the efficiency of operations suffered a setback causing extensive damages to consumers.
Government fertiliser companies
This is the case with other institutions as well. TV audiences would recall how two Chairmen of fertiliser companies pathetically failed to provide simple information to the President, at a meeting held at the Presidential Secretariat, where the critical issue of fertiliser ban was discussed a few moons ago. They were given marching orders, in the presence of a large audience, to collate required information.
The vital rubber industry has been sliding down a slippery road over the last few years and its key post of Rubber Research Institute Director has remained vacant for the last several years. The Rubber Research Board (RRB) called for applications for the recruitment of research officers almost a year ago, and it has failed to even hold interviews. As a result, Rubber Research Institute (RRI) lost the opportunity of recruiting the cream, young talented graduates, to be groomed as scientists, at a time when experienced scientists are leaving in batches to take up academic positions in universities.
In the filling of Deputy Director (Technology) post, eleven interviews were held and the job aspirant had to seek judicial intervention, as last resort. It was shocking to hear that the RRI had 42 vacancies in the scientist cadre, and as a result a majority of the research projects have come to a standstill. The rubber sector has been plummeting, with no one taking responsibility for the declining trend. Here again, the RRB Chairman is a nominee of the so-called Viyathmaga.
Marine Environment Protection Authority
The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) which came into limelight following the two major maritime disasters, is also badly handicapped by the dearth of marine scientists. It had only one Ph.D holder, specialised in marine ecology, in the capacity of General Manager, and he was compelled to rejoin the Ruhunu University, after working almost ten years at MEPA. It was followed by the resignation of another experienced female employee with two master’s degrees, one in maritime affairs in the UK, and another in environmental science, a few moons ago. Undoubtedly, the leaving of the above two marine scientists would have had a crippling effect on MEPA, as it struggled to cope with marine pollution resulting from the two major disasters. The sinking of MV X-Press Pearl had an adverse impact on the environment of the port of Colombo, the livelihood of the fishing community as well as the environmental health of the coastal belt was badly affected while denting our image in shipping circles. The most important convention, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), has not yet been ratified and the Auditor General had faulted the lapses of MEPA in this regard.
Its Chairman, another key member of Viyathmaga, was given a deadline to assess the environmental damage caused by the inferno of the X-press Pearl, by the end of November. So far she has not been able to quantify the environmental damages, without which no claim can be made for compensation. In the meantime, the Auditor General has undertaken a comprehensive audit on the progress of the ratification of the MARPOL Convention, to prevent marine pollution by ships, in which damning observations have been made. Though I have first-hand information of the Viyathmaga nominees who have messed up their organisations, the limited time and space does not permit me to highlight them.
President’s intervention necessary
Out of the five year term, two years have elapsed, leaving only three years for the President to revive the economy, by steering the institutions presently headed by the Viyathmaga members. This earnest request is made from the President to replace those square pegs in round holes, by appointing subject matter specialists with proven track records to manage those institutions more efficiently and productively. It is reported that ministers are reluctant to deal with the square pegs of Viyathmaga, as they do not wish to earn the wrath of the President, and this may be one of the reasons these square pegs in round holes have taken an upper hand.
(Ranasinghe is a Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant. This article has been written with malice or prejudice to none, and concern for the well-being of our country.)