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By Namini Wijedasa  

When he flagged to the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) top leadership in May 2021 that standards should urgently be introduced to regulate cooking gas as disaster was looming, he was instructed to take no further action till the matter was resolved with the concerned parties, states an affidavit to the Court of Appeal (CA) by Thushan Gunawardena, former CAA Executive Director.

By November and December of that year, there were hundreds of fires and explosions related to liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders. There has been no valuation of the damages to life and property.

Mr. Gunawardena resigned from the CAA in September 2021 after futilely flagging several questionable trade deals. He now resides and works in Australia and submitted the affidavit to support the writ petition filed by public litigation activist Nagananda Kodituwakku over the LPG-associated explosions and fires. The case is ongoing.

Last week, the Sunday Times published the findings of a scientific committee appointed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then President, to inquire into the incidents. They confirmed that a change in the gas composition had caused increased pressure within the cylinders and that the cookers and related paraphernalia sold in Sri Lanka were not geared to withstand the change.

Mr. Gunawardena’s affidavit highlights several matters of public concern–particularly that the threat had been identified well before the accidents occurred but that, despite repeated warnings, nothing was done.

The affidavit says that, in April 2021, Litro Lanka Ltd, a respondent in the case, informed the CAA that it would introduce a new “range” of LPG cylinders of “international standard” containing 18 litres of LPG. Till then, Litro was commonly selling three types of cylinders: 12.5kg, 5kg and 2.3kg.

The CAA investigated its new 18-litre product and found that “it was a fraudulent act to deceive the innocent consumer as it contained only 9.2 kilograms of gas with a price tag of Rs. 1,355.00 per cylinder, that cost more per kilogram to the consumer,” the affidavit states. The CAA ordered Litro to withdraw the new product from the market but this was ignored.

CAA also never approved a change in the composition of LPG from 80 percent butane and 20 percent propane to 50 percent butane and 50 percent propane as this was “highly dangerous”, the affidavit states. Such a shift would increase pressure inside the gas cylinders, rendering them unsafe for domestic use, particularly with the low-quality gas cookers being used in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Gunawardena says both Litro and the other gas company, Laugfs Gas PLC, knew the dangers gas consumers would face. However, the former Chairman of Litro, Anil Koswatte, provided “misleading statements deliberately to justify the new product to the innocent consumers whilst stating unfounded claims of safety and efficacy”.

He notified the CAA Chairman and its Board of Directors that Litro Gas “was misleading the public with false advertising about the 18L gas cylinder” and that CAA should initiate legal action for violation of consumer protection laws”. This was not done.

Mr. Gunawardena said he had the contents of three Litro gas cylinders from the market tested. The reports confirmed the high propane percentages. Both Litro and Laugfs had “surreptitiously increased the use of propane from 20% to 50%, apparently to increase business turnover…,” he claims. He provides supporting documentation to the court.

Litro had additionally adopted a “false and misleading marketing strategy” claiming that the 18L cylinder could cook more. It was a smokescreen to cover the reduction of gas volume, the affidavit states. The company claimed the product was of international standard, high efficiency, maximum safety and high capacity. This could not be independently verified and “was a highly inappropriate and a criminal act as it put life and property of the gas users in danger”, it asserts.

Mr. Gunawardena says he wrote to President Rajapaksa in May 2021 highlighting the “gross irresponsible, fraudulent and extremely disruptive trade practice” adopted by the two gas companies. Separately, he urged the CAA Chairman to obtain safety standards from the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) for the use of propane and butane for LPG.

In response, the CAA’s Director (Consumer Affairs and Information” had told him there was “no need to take any further action until the matter would be resolved with the participation of the parties concerned”.

But he flagged his concerns with the Chairman and Board again a few days later, in view of “the threat posed to the life of the consumers and to their property and, therefore, the need to address the issue without delay”.

In June 2021, the CAA Chairman informed Mr. Gunawardena by email that SLSI had received complaints of gas cylinder valves leaking owing to the change of composition. He wrote back that it could pose a serious hazard and possible loss of life, if the information SLSI had got was true.

Among the others that he notified of the impending danger were the Ministers in charge of Trade and Consumer Protection and the Secretary to the President. He also spoke out publicly to warn consumers. The affidavit said he was compelled to resign from the CAA as his “life was threatened”.

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