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Sunday July 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.

UNESCO DG to discuss archaeological endeavours in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s president has said that he will discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city with visiting UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay will visit Sri Lanka from July 16-19 and take part at the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Sri Lanka’s membership of UNESCO at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre in Colombo.

She will also travel to UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the island, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“I have invited the Director General of UNESCO to visit Sri Lanka and discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city. Several universities overseas have shown interest in supporting us for these activities, and we are moving forward with their collaboration,” Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“Anuradhapura boasts a rich history spanning over a millennium, once renowned as a hub of trade and economics. Preserving and exploring this ancient city’s archaeological treasures remains a significant endeavour.”

“New archaeological efforts in the Anuradhapura district are now imperative,” Wickremesinghe said during a ceremony to inaugurate a 150-kilowatt solar power system installed by the LTL Group at the Sri Maha Bodhiya premises in Anuradhapura on Saturday (13).

Wickremesinghe pointed out that UNESCO has undertaken extensive archaeological projects in Angkor Thom in Cambodia, and Luang Prabang in Laos.

“However, we have not taken the necessary steps to implement these activities in Anuradhapura city. Therefore, I have advised both the Department of Archaeology and the Cultural Triangle to undertake these initiatives.”

These efforts are part of a comprehensive program aimed at establishing Anuradhapura as a globally renowned city, Wickremesinghe said.

While Sigiriya has gained international fame, Sri Lanka has not adequately highlighted Anuradhapura’s historical significance as a major trade and economic center in the past, the president pointed out.

“Cities like Tanjore (Thanjavur), Madurai, and Sanchipuram are often discussed, yet Anuradhapura, the fourth city, has been overlooked. Therefore, it is crucial to develop Anuradhapura city.”

As part of these initiatives, preparations are underway to establish new hotels in Anuradhapura, which will contribute significantly to its development, Wickremesinghe said. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Government committed to improving living conditions in Jaffna: Sri Lanka PM

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s prime minister, who is in Jaffna “to monitor the progress” and “get a little feedback” has said the government is committed to improving living conditions of the people in the northern peninsula.

“This government is dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Jaffna Peninsula,” Dinesh Gunawardena told a Jaffna District Coordinating Committee meeting on Friday, according to a statement by his media division.

“In order to increase the living conditions, we have embarked on an increase in most of the expenditure needed by the departments, and also special allocations for rural and urban development in the local government area.”

Nationalist Gunawardena met with Tamil politicians at the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat Office and participated in the distribution of rice and egg incubators for low income families.

“A special privilege to be with you all, in order to monitor the progress made by all of you, as well as to get a little feedback where we stand today in relation to the reports given.”

Gunawardena joins a string of leading political figures who have visited the north ahead of upcoming polls.

The government was, he said, “committed to improve the services and living conditions, therefore, to provide the necessary infrastructure for developments, which means much to your area.”

The prime minister said he appreciated the efforts of farmers because “farmers are all private sector, I would say. Let us not forget, farmers are all in the private sector, either in the ownership or in the tenancy. They are private contributors to the national development of the economy.”

The poverty numbers are “fairly managed” in the country. Gunawardena said, pointing out that poverty was a key problems in any economy. “Any country, you would agree with me, the richest country, in the United States even, food stamps have been given. So all economies the world are going through difficult situations in relation to the poor.

“We have to look after the poor especially in these remote villages of the Northern Province…”

Minister Douglas Devanada, MPs M A Sumanthiran, Angajan Ramanathan, C Vigneshwaran, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, and other officials participated in the meeting. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Sri Lanka leader’s presidential campaign faces dilemma over coalition: sources

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign is facing a dilemma over coalition due to rivalry parties with different political ideologies, sources said.

President Wickremesinghe is yet to announce his candidacy for the presidential poll which is expected to be declared by the island nation’s Election Commission after July 17.

However, his close allies and some ministers in the current coalition government have already started a campaign to promote him assuming that President Wickremesinghe will declare his candidacy.

Three sources who spoke to EconomyNext said legislators from the main opposition center-right Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) are ready to join, but they do not want to be in coalition with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujna Peramuna (SLPP).

“SJB members who want to join Wickremesinghe are bit nervous because people wanted to oust SLPP in 2022 for their past sins including corruption and wrong economic policies,” on source who is in a member in the core campaign strategy group told EconomyNext.

Another source said majority of nationalist party SLPP are with the president, but a few key SLPP leaders do not want to back Wickremesinghe because of his market-led economic policies.

“SLPP does not want to be seen as backing Wickremesinghe’s privatization moves. So a few leaders are worried to join the campaign and have different idea of fielding their own campaign,” the second source who is indirectly involved with facilitating meeting between Wickremesinghe and legislators said.

The SJB is leaned towards somewhat liberal economic policies and has ensured to treat all ethnic people equally, while SLPP has backed a state-controlled economy and has given priority for ethnic majority Sinhala Buddhists.

UNDECIDED VOTERS

There is no formal and transparent survey to assess the popularity of possible presidential candidates.

However, an informal survey shows Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa is leading followed by Marxists Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka.

The same survey has shown a gradual gain for Wickremesinghe in the last three months.

“He is confident of winning, but he has to win most of the undecided voters for that,” a third source, who is in the campaign planning team, said.

“Still things are very fluid. Majority of the people still don’t understand the benefits of economic recovery and the country getting out of the debt default under the current president. We will have a clear picture by end of next month.”

Wickremesinghe was elected as the president in July 2022 by the parliament after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country in fear of his life amid mass protests and outside the presidential palace.

Wickremesinghe has implemented some tough economic reforms including raising taxes, imposing new taxes, freezing recruitments to state-owned companies, and privatizing loss making government-owned entities in line with commitments agreed with the IMF.

UNPOPULOUR REFORMS

Those reforms have made him unpopulour mainly among government employees and lower income groups.

He has raised the salaries of government employees from April this year while has introduced a new transfer payment called Aswesuma for lower income and vulnerable groups.

Sri Lanka faced an unprecedented economic crisis with a sovereign debt default in 2022. But it has recovered faster than expected under Wickremesinghe administration with difficult and unpopulour reforms.

People protested against the SLPP-led government in 2022 and ousted then leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all his relatives from the key ministerial positions for their alleged involvement in corruption and wrong economic policies.

The SLPP which had more than two-third majority in the parliament after 2020 general election, is worried about its perception and electoral performance after the economic crisis.

Analysts say Wickremesinghe has a greater chance to win if he join with SJB than SLPP because of the SLPP’s negative perception.

Sources, however, said they are in discussions with both SLPP and SJB legislators to agree on a common programme for Wickremesinghe’s presidency.

Presidential election is likely to be held either in October first week or second week, Election Commission officials say.

Wickremesinghe lost the parliamentary election in 2020, but entered the parliament in 2021 using the solo seat his party won through the national list.  (Colombo/July 13/2024)

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