Tens of thousands of illegal gas connections dot the country’s gas distribution network leaving thousands of spots highly vulnerable to gas leakage and therefore to explosions the like of which caused the recent Narayanganj mosque tragedy.
The illegal gas lines, established using cheap and substandard pipes not meant for gas supply, run for kilometres at a stretch, covering villages after villages under the very nose of the authorities.
At many places the illegal gas lines run over the surface of the ground, not secured properly at their joints and are regularly run over by vehicles.
The points at which the illegal lines connect the gas distribution network are the most vulnerable places of leakage about which the government does not have any idea.
‘There are places where plastic pipes are used for illegally supplying gas to households, often fitted overhead using bamboo poles,’ energy and mineral resources division senior secretary Anisur Rahman told New Age.
He said that there may be 2,00,000 illegal gas connections in areas covered by Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Limited, which is responsible for distributing piped gas to about 65 per cent of total 44 lakh consumers.
‘Sadly we only talk about it when we come across a tragedy,’ said Anis, referring to the recent blast, believed to be caused by gas leakage, at a mosque in Narayanganj’s Fatullah which so far killed 25 while 13 are still struggling for their lives.
The mosque management committee alleged that their complaints about gas pipe leakage went unheeded for the last nine months because they failed to bribe the TGTDCL staff.
Narayanganj is at the forefront of illegal piped gas business though it is also widespread in other areas including Dhaka and its outskirts, Savar, Gazipur, Narshingdi, Munshiganj and Tangail.
The number of beneficiaries is so large and illegal connections are so widespread in some of the areas that the promise to legalise illegal gas connections dominated electoral pledges during the local government elections in the past. This was especially true for Narayanganj.
Politicians are benefitted from illegal piped gas lines because they provide a premise for a strong electoral pledge and it is also an opportunity to make some quick bucks by playing an important role in the syndicate of such an illegal business.
‘We will not be successful in ending this illegal and dangerous practice unless politicians help us in resolving the problem,’ said Anis.
Over the last couple of weeks, the TGTDCL uprooted 6km of illegal gas pipe lines stretching across 10 villages in Narayanganj and disconnected 6,000 illegal gas connections at Basila housing society in Dhaka.
Government gas distribution company high-ups have not denied that their colleagues formed an important part of the syndicate involved in the illegal piped gas line business.
Probes conducted by different government agencies, including Anti-Corruption Commission, repeatedly revealed the involvement of many TGTDCL officers and employees behind the illegal gas connections.
The TGTDCL had to transfer 43 per cent of its 2,300 officers and employees last year as it implemented the recommendation of an ACC probe calling for the transfer of the government employees who spent a long time at a single station.
Consumer rights and anti-corruption campaigners closely associate corruption with government employees’ stay at a single station for a long time.
‘The stealing of natural gas in massive proportion became possible because of the patronisation of the gas company people,’ said consumer rights campaigner Dhaka University professor Badrul Imam.
He said that for general people it was not possible to steal gas from the sophisticated gas distribution network that is lodged several feet under the ground.
Last year, the power, energy and mineral resources ministry had given separate deadlines for gas marketing and distribution companies to remove all illegal piped gas connections threatening to hold the top officials of the state-owned companies liable for each remaining illegal connection after the expiry of the deadline.
‘We are regularly removing illegal gas pipe lines and not sparing anyone involved in establishing them,’ said TGTDCL managing director Ali Mohammad Al-Mamun.
Consumer rights campaigners and illegal gas consumers however found the authorities’ move to disconnect illegal gas connections counterproductive with the syndicate of politicians, gas company employees and their contractors earning even more while reinstalling them.
‘I doubt the government’s intention to improve the situation,’ said Ratan Sutradhar, a resident of Mirzapur, Tangail, who paid local politicians for illegal gas connection but never got it.
‘People have high demand for gas and the government need to come up with a viable solution,’ he added.
Piped gas is mainly consumed for cooking in Bangladesh where 81 per cent people still use biomass for cooking since using liquefied petroleum gas is not a viable option for it is too expensive.
Piped gas connection has remained suspended to households since 2010, which is another reason for people who need connection to resort to illegal means.
The decades-old poorly maintained piped gas distribution network is no less a threat to people than the illegal gas lines.
The gas distribution network has become vulnerable to leakage at many places as nearly a fourth of about 13,500km TGTDCL distribution network was laid way back in the 1960s.
In a recent survey, the TGTDCL found 7 per cent of its half a million gas risers, used to bring buried natural gas piping above ground, covering about 14 lakh of its consumers, leaking.
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