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Sunday April 14th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s mysterious gas explosions become nobody’s baby

ECONOMYNEXT – A distressing sight in the village of Waligamuwa in Sri Lanka’s central district of Matale last weekend brought home a sombre truth: that lofty ideals such as accountability are perhaps destined to remain abstract concepts and not much more.

Villagers had gathered to mourn 53-year-old Ashoka Priyangani, a mother of four who’d succumbed to burn injuries from a cooking gas-related explosion in her own kitchen. Her family, friends and neighbours were seen congregated round the coffin, angrily protesting and demanding justice from wherever it might come.

The unsuspecting Priyangani had been trying to cook as usual when an explosion caused her severe burn injuries that would soon prove fatal. Her family had rushed her to Kandy hospital, where she died leaving behind a family of five.

Priyangani’s grieving widower now has but one goal: to take both the government and the gas company to court.

The liquid petroleum (LP) gas explosion that ended Priyangani’s life was no isolated incident. A wave of such explosions, fires and related incidents in the last 48 days has shaken Sri Lankans, a vast majority of whom are already battling worsening crises across multiple fronts.

According to police, nearly 730 incidents have been recorded from November 01 to December 15. Of these, 24 explosions were due to gas leaks directly from the cylinder while the rest were, according to authorities, due to subpar cookers or accessories such as regulators and hoses.

A majority of the incidents were linked to LP gas sold by the state run Litro Gas Lanka Ltd.  Litro maintains a duopoly on cooking gas supply in Sri Lanka with Laugfs Gas (Pvt) Ltd.

“Can’t the government or the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) advise the public to stop using gas until they clear this mess up?” news footage showed a relative of Priyangani’s as saying.

Over six weeks after the first explosion, Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal on Friday (17) ordered the gas companies to recall LP gas cylinders in the market and replace them free of charge with cylinders approved by the Sri Lanka Standards Institute.

The court also ordered that both Litro and Laugfs maintain a mix of 70 percent butane and 30 percent propane in the LP gas cylinders they sell, following unverified speculation that a change in composition was the reason for the explosions.

Experts have hypothesised that increasing the propane content of the cylinder to 50 percent had resulted in high pressure which had led to leaks from the cylinder. However, this has yet to be proven scientifically.

Related: Sri Lanka Court of Appeal orders LP gas companies to recall cylinders: report

The court orders notwithstanding, no one has yet taken responsibility for the series of reported incidents let alone the death. Authorities have also yet to determine the exact cause of the explosions, and, despite the existential threat posed to millions of Sri Lankans, critics claim, no concrete steps appear to have been taken.

Deepening mystery

Glass-topped gas cookers exploding appears to be a fairly common phenomenon in India, Pakistan and some East Asian countries. One theory put forward by some experts is that this is due to the ignition/pilot light firing up – under the glass – as the knob does not come out after fire is reduced or shut down. It is pushed in.

The knob sometimes doesn’t come out due to dirt in the mechanism, but why this is suddenly the case appears to be a mystery. It may be because there was an earlier bad gas stock with oil residues which was brought due to CAA price controls and it clogged up the works, analysts have hypothesised.

If the alleged change in composition change is indeed to blame, analysts say, it is definitely a fallout of the price controls.

Economic interventions leading to wrong incentives for agents has led to unintended consequences as is typical, critics have argued.  However, the gas companies have operated for decades without much trouble, so why now appears to be the biggest question.

Total inaction

Public confusion over the bizarre explosions is rising and frustration over the apparent lack of accountability appears to be setting in the face of alleged government inaction.

A group of ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members were seen praying at the Seenigama Dewalaya earlier this week, seeking divine retribution on the gas companies who had “endangered the lives of consumers”. Short of this, no concrete action appears to have been taken, critics say.

The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has also largely remained mum about the explosions though parliament has seen heated arguments over the matter, even as explosions continue in various parts of the country.

“Nobody tells with any clarity about what is really wrong with gas,” SLPP MP Anura Priyadharshana Yapa told the media this week when he was asked to comment. Yapa is now critical of the government.

“If it is in another country, the board of directors (of the gas company) would have been dragged by their ears and arrested. Now they pretend as if they don’t know anything. This will lead the country to anarchy,” he said.

Friday’s Court of Appeal decision saw the gas companies ordered to revert to the earlier 30-percent propane composition and also have the Sri Lanka Standards Institute oversee the quality of gas being distributed in the country.

Critics, however, claim that the damage has already been done.

Already the two gas suppliers have ceased distribution in the market. Many consumers have now switched to kerosene. The demand for kerosene has risen by 100 metric tons in the past two months, the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) said.

The LP gas shortage has already hit Sri Lanka’s hotels, restaurants and canteens hard.

Asela Sampath, the chief of the All Island Canteen Owners’ Association (AICOA,) said on Friday that more than 80 percent of canteens and hotels will be closed from Saturday (18) onward as a result.

Meanwhile, an LP gas shipment from Bangladesh had been docked in the Colombo port owing to a quality issue. The government later directed Litro not to buy the consignment as it does not meet the standards. However, on Friday, the Secretary to the Ministry of Technology reportedly granted permission o unload gas after he tested a sample aboard the ship.

Allegations and counter allegations

“We cannot ascribe a monetary value to a life that was lost. We have asked these companies to do justice by them. We will also take part in that,” Consumer Affairs State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna told the media this week.

“We are doing our best to solve this matter as quickly as possible.”

Litro, for its part, rejects the government’s allegations. The state-run gas company maintains that it had nothing to do with the recent spate of explosions.

“It’s too early to comment on who will take responsibility for the death as investigations show a completely different result as opposed to a gas explosion. So further investigations are going on,” a Litro official told EconomyNext requesting anonymity as they were not authorized to comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, police confirmed that Priyangani’s death was due to a gas explosion, but noted that investigations are still under way to determine the exact cause of the incident.

“According to hospital reports, the patient had died due to severe burns from the incident. The gas pipe and other [accessories] have been sent to the government analyst for a report,” police said in a statement.

Police also said it was suspected that the end of hose connecting the cylinder to the stove had become loose and a leak had occurred while the stove was already lit. The fire must have gone through the pipe because the gas supply had not been cut off from the regulator, police said.

According to writer and analyst Vinu Wijesekara, Sri Lanka consumes over 440,000 metric tons of LP gas annually. Approximately 42% of the population exclusively uses gas cylinders for domestic purposes while 43% use firewood alongside LP gas and 13-15% of the population exclusively uses firewood, Wijesekara wrote to the privately owned Daily FT in 2018.

Litro controls 80 percent of the market while only other competitor Laughfs controls the rest.

The government has contemplated plans for the CPC to open another state-owned LP gas company, but the plan has been put on hold due to financial constraints of the country, which is facing an increasing risk of sovereign debt defaults.

Legal perspective

“This unfortunate death could have been prevented if the authorities had taken necessary and timely action to monitor the quality of gas cylinders & ensure the safety of consumers,” Human Rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka told EconomyNext.

“Questions must be asked as to why authorities failed to take action that could have prevented the explosions.”

Fonseka, a government critic, also said relevant officials must be held to account and the affected parties should consider making a police complaint so that an investigation takes place that is the first step pertaining to criminal action against those responsible.

“Additionally, affected parties can also explore filing a case in the Supreme Court in terms of violating their fundamental rights. These are some measures that can be taken to obtain redress and justice for the victims.”

Questions must also be asked pertaining to the regulatory framework governing gas cylinders and why authorities were unable to ensure the safety that is required of such products, she said.

“Recent months have also seen officials formerly with the Consumer Affairs Authority commenting on discrepancies with such entities and the need for urgent reforms. Questions should be asked as to whether such reforms have taken place and the impact on the rights of citizens,” she said.

“It is incumbent on the opposition, civil society and media to keep attention on this issue and insist that there is a thorough investigation and accountability. Public pressure is also required to ensure the state and private actors adhere to quality control standards and that the rights and safety of consumers are given priority,” she added. (Colombo/Dec18/2021)

Reported by Shihar Aneez, Mahadiya Hamza and Chanka Jayasinge

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  1. L Perera says:

    Yesterday (18th Jan 2022), a fire had burnt gas cooker & table due to a leak emerged suddenly at a house at Heiyanthuduwa (Sapugaskanda). May I know what legal actions to be taken against whom.

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  1. L Perera says:

    Yesterday (18th Jan 2022), a fire had burnt gas cooker & table due to a leak emerged suddenly at a house at Heiyanthuduwa (Sapugaskanda). May I know what legal actions to be taken against whom.

Sri Lanka undershoots inflation target in first quarter despite VAT hike

Sri Lanka undershoots inflation target in first quarter despite VAT hike

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s inflation is expected to lower than initially projected in 2024, despite a value added tax hike, Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe has said

“When we looked at the last two monetary policy reviews… we had an inflation path a little elevated to what was realized, ” he told reporters following a March 50 basis point rate cut.

“Mainly because our projection factored in the VAT increase in January and some of the short-term food price increases, we have seen in December and January.

But what we have seen the actual inflation realization, is that the impact of VAT has not been that much and also the reduction in electricity prices also has helped, as well as the supply conditions, especially food supplies has been better.

“As a result, inflation outcome has been much lower than we expected.”

Sri Lanka’s central bank has been conducting broadly deflationary policy, except perhaps in December 2024, when a private credit spike appears to have been accommodated by standing facilities on top a seasonal real demand for cash.

The central bank has also allowed the currency to re-appreciate departing inflationist policy generally seen since 1978, analysts say.

“In our projections, we see in the next 12 to 18 months, inflation will remain well below our target range between 4-6. In our expectation it will remain around 4-5 percent in the next 12 to 18 months.

“That is one of the reasons we saw we had some pace to reduce our policy rate.”

The central bank cut its policy corridor 50 basis points to 8.50 and 9.50 percent, and has allowed excess liquidity to build up in money markets from a balance of payments deficit (net dollar purchases) at the current market interest rate structure.

Though money is being injected through various tools allowing some banks to trade without deposits, overall, there is a sell down of its domestic securities holdings.

Sri Lanka has a reserve collecting central bank currently subject to IMF forex reserve targets and domestic asset sell down target (which are essentially complementary), an inflation target of up to 7 percent and an implicit potential output (printing money for growth) target.

The central bank currently providing exceptionally monetary stability not for many years, and cautiously lowering rates, as well as reversing some of the inflation it has created in the past in food prices and energy.

Since September 2022, when deflationary policy started to show up in the balance of payments, the central bank has only created 3.9 percent inflation according to the widely watched Colombo Consumer Price Index.

However, analysts have warned that in the past, deeply flawed operational frameworks involving multiple and contradictory anchors have tended to trip up when private credit recovered when rates are cut claiming inflation is low.

Sri Lanka also does not have a penalty rate for standing facilities, unlike countries with tighter operational frameworks, which are less prone to crises. (Colombo/Apr14/2024)

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Sri Lanka eyes on speedy debt resolution at IMF/WB Spring Meetings: State Finmin

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is looking forward to have discussions for a speedy debt resolution and restore debt sustainability at the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) starting on Monday (15) in Washington, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe said.

Minister Semasinghe is leading the Sri Lankas delegation for this year’s IMF/WB Spring Meetings that includes Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe and Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana.

The island nation expects to conclude the debt restructuring negotiation with its private creditors and sovereign bond holders and formalize the already agreed deal with bilateral creditors by end of the first half of this year, government sources have told EconomyNext.

Sri Lanka also expects to receive the third tranche of the IMF by mid this year after the completion of the second review of a $3 billion loan program last month.

“We expect fruitful engagements that will pave the way for unlocking the next tranche of essential funding and a speedy debt resolution which will enhance economic stability, confidence, sustainable growth, restore debt sustainability and ultimately, improving the welfare of every Sri Lankan citizen,” the Minister said in his X (Twitter) platform.

“Sri Lanka’s journey to its current state of stability and progress is due to the invaluable support provided by the IMF, World Bank and international partners during the most severe economic crisis we faced since 2022. “

“As we navigate the complexities of global economic challenges, we will engage closely with the IMF and aim to contribute to broader international economic cooperation with our partners.”

“Through dialogue, partnership, and concerted efforts, we are confident that we will achieve brighter economic future for Sri Lanka,” Semasinghe said.

The Monday’s Spring Meetings come as President Ranil Wickremesinghe government is facing a presidential election after long delayed local government and provincial polls.

Some government officials have said there could be likely slippages in the IMF targets during the election period as majority of Sri Lankans feel their struggling has risen due the implementation of IMF conditions including increased taxes.

The government has already started to relax some of the tough conditions it has maintained to boost the state revenue amid an increase in the tax revenue.

However, President Wickremesinghe has vowed to continue the IMF-led reforms as they are citing they are the only solution to come out of the current unprecedented economic crisis. (Colombo/April 14/2024)

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LGBTQIA+ Rights: Europe and South Asia See Similar Discriminatory Practices

ECONOMYNEXT – The rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community have been fraught with challenges and continue to be so, despite the many gains achieved in recent years.

Nor are those handful of rights universally applied, a recent discussion which looked at the European and South Asian perspectives on same-sex rights and unions revealed. Most developed nations have introduced protections for those identifying as LGBTQIA+, and a view from a distant lens paints a picture of tolerance. Yet, a closer look at the European arena throws up the many gaps that are evident in the application of the law.

In the so-called conservative South Asian nations, changes to legislation are slow to be implemented. That may come as a surprise, for, contrary to popular belief, same-sex relationships were culturally acceptable in the South Asian region and is not a Western concept points out Ruhaan Joshi, a Public Policy Practitioner from India.

Society’s view on same-sex relationships dimmed with the imposition of Western values and the criminalisation of such relationships with the advent of colonial rule.

While the LGBTQIA+ communities in South Asian countries currently battle to have same-sex relationships decriminalised and their unions legally accepted, the irony is that countries that first made such relationships punishable by law have moved on to be more welcoming, though some discriminatory practices continue.

Joshi was part of a discussion themed ‘On Being Queer and LGBTQIA+ in South Asia and Europe, held in Germany on April 9 this year. The discussion which included the release of two papers which examined the rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community in Europe and South Asia, respectively, was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Joining Joshi in the discussion were lawyer and parliamentarian Premnath C Dolawatte from Sri Lanka, Milosz Hodun, President, Projekt Polska Foundation, Poland, Michael Kauch, a Member of the European Parliament and RENEW Europe Group and Inaya Zarakhel, a Dutch-Pakistani actress and an activist on Queer Rights, who moderated the discussion. The two papers were presented by Hodun and Joshi, respectively.

In his opening remarks, Kauch pointed out that while the view of the liberals is that the rights recognized in one member nation of the EU must be accepted by all member countries, that is not the ground reality, the issue of Rainbow families being a case in point.

In the context of the European Union, though the Court of Justice has ruled on the freedom of movement of those in same-sex partnerships and their families, the ruling is not universally applied by member nations.

In Italy, and some European nations, surrogacy which helps childless couples to become parents is illegal. In other situations where same-sex parents are of different nationalities a child in that union faces restriction of movement or the possibility of being stateless if one parent hails from a country where such parental rights are not recognised.

Hodun meanwhile stated that in Poland transgender persons must first sue their parents for the gender assigned to them at birth, to have their gender marker changed on documents.

Some countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan resort to State-sponsored homophobia, and in many instances politicians and political parties promote such biases to boost their voter base it was pointed out. Even where laws are in place for the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights, there is no political will to implement them.

In Europe where migrants arrive in droves seeking asylum, and are frowned upon by many of those countries, LGBTQIA+ members face even more discrimination Hodun says, both by other refugees and governments, where most often the state ignores the situation despite the guidelines issued by the UN and the European Court of Justice. Hate speech and hate crimes too are on the rise he adds stating that at least 80 per cent go unreported.

Increasingly the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced a diminishing of their safe spaces as right-wing and populist governments are elected across the globe. Taking a dig at feminism, meanwhile, Kauch states that though feminists uphold a woman’s right to opt for an abortion, they take a different approach on the topic of surrogacy.

Dolawatte who waded into unchartered waters when he presented a Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise same-sex relationships through an amendment to section 365 of the Penal Code and the repealing of section 365A in its totality, is hopeful that the Bill will pass its third reading. It’s been an uphill battle he says, referring to the case filed in the Supreme Court against the Bill. The court ruled in his favour.

He had little or no support from his own party members, but says the President of the country, and younger party members are with him on this issue. Apart from making Sri Lanka a safe space, it would encourage foreign nationals identifying as LGBTQIA+ to visit without fear, and thus boost tourism he opines.

As Joshi states society has come a long way from when LGBTQIA+ were made fun of and were subject to violence to the positive portrayal in movies. Such movies are also well-received by society. Transgender identity has a distinct recognition in South Asian religious beliefs. Hijra, Khwaja Sara or Kinnar are some names given to transgender folk and they have, since ancient times been an accepted group in society. On the one hand, there’s Afghanistan and the Maldives which make no allowances for the LGBTQIA+ community, while Nepal became the first South Asian nation in 2023, to register a same-sex marriage, Joshi states. In most South Asian nations, the courts have ruled in favour of relaxing the rules against this community, and, like in Europe, it is the governments that drag their feet.

For governments to change their stance, society must take the lead in fighting for the unconditional dignity of the individual, freedom of movement, and safeguarding the tenets of democracy, he says adding that it must also run parallel with the LGBTQIA+ community looking beyond themselves at issues that impact democratic values, and the societal restrictions non-LGBTIQIA+ groups face, such as opposition to inter-caste marriage and the right to adopt outside their caste systems and equal access to many other privileges.

While the panellists advocated working together across the global divide as a step towards achieving equal rights for all, Dolawatte also called for caution; too much pressure on such issues from Europe he said may not be welcome, and must be handled with care.

With right-wing and populist governments getting elected across the globe, Kauch claims the forthcoming EU elections will prove crucial in deciding how future and current governments ensure tolerance and diversity amongst their citizenry.

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