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Monumental blunders and LPG scandal

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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.

Compensating victims

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.

Irresponsible utterances

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.)



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Features

Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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