On our underregulated CNG kits sector
‘As many as 13 were killed when a gas cylinder exploded after a van had an accident’; this tragic incident took place on Saturday last week. ‘Seven killed when a gas cylinder exploded’; this was a couple of days before that. ‘Three dead in Lahore’ is from earlier in the year, ‘15 died in a bus fire when the cylinder exploded’, again from earlier in the year. And there are more news of ‘Eight killed’ and then ‘five killed’. All of these are headlines of news that I googled when I looked for ‘gas cylinder explosions in Pakistan’. In fact, I did not have to even go to the second page of the search results, all of the above were from the first 10 searched results.
The six incidents mentioned above took the lives of 51 people, injured many others and caused loss of property. A number of lives lost, among the above, were of children. Yet, every time such an incident becomes a ‘breaking news’ item on the television, it gets reported for a few hours, or till the next breaking news, and then it becomes background information. There is no follow-up on the news, there is never any inquiry as to why so many of the cylinders are exploding, nor a mention of who is responsible to ensure proper quality of cylinders and proper installation and, of course, there is never any news of what actions have been taken by the government to regulate the area better since the government has not woken up to the task yet.
How many deaths will it take for the government to wake up? Is it because most of the lives being lost are those of ordinary citizens? Would the same thing be happening if it was the transport of the rich or the more connected that was exploding as often?
Why have the civil society groups and organisations that focus on consumer protection not become more vocal? Why are they not demanding requisite inquiries, stipulation of required standards and their implementation, and the needed hue and cry for bringing culprits to justice?
Who installs these CNG cylinders, and how do we know the cylinders and other equipment used meets minimum standards to be road worthy? Do we know if the installation done for these cylinders is proper? Have such standards been stipulated and set. If there are no such standards these should be stipulated at the earliest, and an implementation mechanism for ensuring compliance should be established. We need to ensure that all new installations meet these standards while all existing cylinders are checked to ensure they also meet the minimum standard. If the standards are already there but are not being implemented, we need to make sure they are implemented and those who were responsible for implementing them are brought to justice for their carelessness and criminal negligence.
Vehicles that come with factory-fitted CNG cylinders are easy to regulate. Once standards have been stipulated all manufacturers will have to adhere to these. If there is an accident afterwards, there should be an investigation and if the installation is found to be faulty and/or of low quality, the vehicle manufacturer should be held responsible. Accidents can happen even when cylinders are of requisite quality and installation right, but then these are accidents, they are not the outcomes of regulatory evasion and/or negligence, carelessness or greed.
For installation after manufacture, for people wanting to convert their fuel oil-based cars to CNG, there should be licensing of installers and car owners should be told that they should get cylinders installed only from licensed and authorised places. That way if there is an accident we will know which installer to hold responsible. And if the vehicle owner went to an un-authorised dealer, we will be able to hold the owner responsible for the accident.
If there is deterioration in quality of installation over time and/or if cylinder quality needs to be checked periodically, there can be an inspection regimen in place whereby owners are asked to get the vehicle inspected periodically, every year or second year, after the installation. Cars have to get their tokens renewed every year. The safety certificates for CNG installation could be checked before tokens are renewed.
It seems that the regulatory and inspection regimen for cylinder and installation safety is not very difficult to visualise and set up. The government just has to do a few simple things like stipulate minimum standards, ensure these have been conveyed to manufacturers and installers and then ensure that those who try to or succeed in evading these are caught in time. Or, at the very least, they are caught and held accountable post fact.
Right now we do not seem to have any of the above. It is no wonder people get CNG kits installed from wherever they can, and the cheaper the better, and for those who install them too, competition must be keen and so they would like to do things with as much profit margin as possible, and so they would say they use good materials but will have an incentive to lie and use poorer quality inputs. The incentives are set for substandard installations and use of substandard material. We are seeing the results of not regulating markets that should be regulated.
Provincial governments are the right authorities for legislating on the subject. They already do vehicle safety, vehicle inspections (or are supposed to do them), they have laws for boiler inspections and so on as well. So, it is the right place for such legislation and the concerned departments should have the requisite expertise that can be pulled together as well. But the issue is that the respective provincial governments have to feel the urgency and the need to take the steps needed. Over the years we have encouraged the conversion of lots of cars to CNG, and the pricing structure was a powerful inducement as well. But the regulatory framework has not been developed in tandem. This should be immediately remedied.
Exploding cylinders is definitely a public issue, especially in public transport, but even in private cars as it puts passengers as well as people around at risk. Lack of regulation here has been very costly and tragic over the last few months alone. And it will continue to be so if the government does not step forward and the civil society does not take up the issue. Shouldn’t the courts be taking suo motu notice here – loss of human life should make the issue notice-worthy?
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]