“It is 9.30 p.m. For over two hours, the cylinder in our house has been leaking and we are frantically calling Indane’s emergency cell numbers.
Three after-office hour numbers are given in the receipt, but all the lines are either busy or no one takes our call,” V.R. Sundaram says in a voice trembling more out of fear than due to his age.
A resident of Saidapet, a thickly populated locality of Chennai, the septuagenarian was fuming as he is aware of the catastrophic consequences of an LPG leak. It was only a few years ago that a delivery boy, claiming to be a mechanic, came home and meddled with the rubber hose. “The flames hit the ceiling,” says Mr. Sundaram, a retired civil engineer.
He is not alone in voicing this demand, as more and more customers feel that the oil marketing companies, citing under-recovery on LPG, and their distributor network, are not paying attention to these issues.
“The quality of cylinders and quality checks at the bottling plants seem to have come down,” a distributor says.
Complaints related to ‘O’ rings, popularly know as washers, in the cylinders are on the rise; as a result, leaks have become routine. “They [OMCs] are playing with fire,” the distributor says, pointing out that many expired cylinders are in circulation.
Since many of the leaks are not recorded, the statistics may not reflect the full picture. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, during 2011 a total of 4,096 cases of cooking gas cylinder/stove fire accidents were reported, a small improvement compared with the 4,912 cases in the previous year. The number of people who died in the accidents last year was 4,005 and those injured 281. Oil industry officials, however, say these figures also include accidents involving kerosene stoves.
Officials of Indian Oil Corporation deny any link between under-recoveries and the drop in customer service. “It is not correct. Given that the money [the under-recovery component] ultimately comes back, though with a delay, there is no question of our scaling down customer service, especially safety.”
One reason, another official admits, could be the steep increase in the number of customers in the past few years and the absence of a corresponding scaling-up of the services.
The national cooking gas customer base, now at 14 crore, including duplicate and ghost connections, was less than nine crore in 2005-06. In two years, it surged past the 10-crore mark and the next two crore customers were added in a couple of years.
This period of seven years, when household income also rose, saw an increased penetration of LPG into lower income groups, partly due to free LPG connection schemes in some States. The need is therefore to create awareness and conduct more safety campaigns and clinics. As for the number of mechanics, distributors are required to have one for every 4,000 customers.
Yes, campaigns and clinics are needed, but there is a greater need for accountability and commitment to customers, says consumer activist T. Sadagopan. Since human lives are involved the need is for more facilities, particularly for emergency response.
The consumers should also actively participate in official LPG safety clinics and not buy uncertified stoves and regulators.