Mujibur Rahman runs a lime factory in Noail of Sonargaon municipality. The gas connection to his factory is illegal. Two days after the blast at the mosque in Narayanganj, a Prothom Alo correspondent visited the factory on Sunday afternoon and saw the main gate locked. But there were people inside the factory.
Mujibur Rahman was also inside the factory at the time. He left the factory immediately after he saw the correspondent. Later, when contacted on his mobile phone, Mujibur said that he had taken the illegal gas connection as many other factories and residential customers in the upazila have been doing the same for long.
Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Limited supplies residential and commercial gas to six districts including Narayanganj, Munshiganj and Dhaka. According to Titas regional office and police, there have been more than 25 gas-related accidents in Narayanganj's Sonargaon upazila in the last eight years, kiling 9 people so far.
In addition, hundreds of people were burned and injured in various ways. One of the major causes of gas accidents is illegal connection through low quality pipes and risers (the part of the gas line above ground level). Such Illegal gas connections in Sonargaon were more common after 2012. The local Awami League MP Abdullah Al Qaiser at the time, and his followers, were accused of being involved in providing illegal gas connections. A number of reports were published in the media. Abdullah al-Qaiser, however, has always denied the allegations.
Not only in Sonargaon, illegal gas connections are common in the entire Narayanganj district. According to Titas estimation, there are about 245 km of illegal gas pipelines in Dhaka and four surrounding districts. The most illegal pipelines are in Narayanganj Sadar, Rupganj, Bandar, Araihazar and Rupganj upazila. Its total length is 179 km.
Consumers who have been using illegal connections say that illegal gas connections were obtained in exchange for bribes from a section of Titas officials and employees, contractors and some local leaders of the ruling political party
Munshiganj Sadar and Gazaria come after that. There are 31 kilometers of illegal lines in the two upazilas. There are 22 km of illegal gas lines in Jatrabari, Shampur, Postagola, Demra, Matuail, Signboard, Karail slum, BTCL area of Banani, Jamgarh, Dhalpur, Amtala and some other areas of Dhaka. Gazipur has 13 kilometres of illegal pipeline. Apart from this, there are some illegal pipelines in Narsingdi.
The trend of illegal gas connections began in 2009, the year the government announced a shutdown of new connections due to gas crisis. Gas connections are still not provided to the residents and it is also very difficult to get gas connections for industries. However, the connection can easily be arranged by paying bribes.
Contrary to Titas' estimation of 250 kilometres of illegal pipelines, the number of subscribers could not be specified. Considering the population and the density of residential buildings in and around Dhaka, Titas officials say the number of illegal customers will be at least one million.
Consumers who have been using illegal connections say that illegal gas connections were obtained in exchange for bribes from a section of Titas officials and employees, contractors and some local leaders of the ruling political party. In some areas, bills are collected monthly. There are allegations that Titas writes off the gas used in illegal connections as 'system loss'.
The Titas authorities did not identify how the illegal connections were provided and who was involved. Occasionally the authorities conduct some raids, disconnect some pipelines, blacklist some contractors. However, illegal pipelines and illegal gas connections to houses never stop. Government’s energy department has suddenly become alert after the explosion at the mosque in Narayanganj as it is assumed that the explosion was caused by gas leak.
This is not system loss. This is stealing
State minister for Power and Energy Nasrul Hamid told Prothom Alo on Sunday that a list of illegal gas connections has been compiled and raids will be conducted soon. Asked why the local office did not conduct the operation if it made the list of illegal pipelines, the state minister said it was not possible to provide illegal connections without the involvement of Titas' men. But the challenge is to find out who is involved. Action will be taken against those involved in the illegal connection of Titas, he added.
The following day, Monday, the minister held a meeting with the heads of six gas distribution companies in the country, including Titas. The meeting decided to start the campaign.
Bribe ranges from 20,000 to 60,000
There is a Titas pipeline in front of the local livestock department office at Tingaon in Bandar upazila of Narayanganj. The correspondent found that gas was leaking from it. The smell of gas was traceable in the open air. There is a risk of a big accident if it comes in contact with e fire in any way. The leak was caused by an illegal connection to the Titas pipeline.
Such illegal gas lines are scattered all over the five upazilas of Narayanganj. In order to provide these illegal connections, a down payment of Tk 20,000 to Tk 60,000 is charged in the area. Then Tk 400 to 450 per month is taken in the form of a bill, which is not deposited to Titas, but divided among the officials and employees involved in the scam.
In the last one year, about 30,000 illegal connections have been disconnected through eight mobile courts in Bandar upazila of the district, said Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Shukla Sarkar.
Tajul Islam, a resident of Adampur area of Bandar upazila, has an illegal gas connection at his house. He said, he had to submit necessary documents including land documents to get the illegal connection. He along with his two brothers together spent Tk 120,000 to the local panchayat committee. Residents of different areas of the upazila said that the issue of illegal connection of the gas line was controlled by the members of the panchayat committee. Besides, local UP members also get money for connections.
The gas crisis has taken a serious turn in homes and industries in Munshiganj. There are allegations that illegal connections are being given with the help Titas Gas employees. As a result, the pressure of gas is low. The legal users have been paying bills every month but they are not getting due service
Adampur Panchayat Committee president, Md Shahjalal said, he did nothing alone but all the locals have taken the connections together. However, he did not answer the question as to who was given the money.
Drives Stopped Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Aiyub Ali from Belma village in Ashulia, Dhaka, has got a gas line connection for more than a year in his home though he never applied to any authorities nor is there any approval of the connection. The house 's caretaker Kauser Ahmed said they had taken illegal connections for 11 gas stoves paying several lakhs of taka to local powerful people around one and a half years ago. They pay an amount of money to them as gas bill every month for uninterrupted gas supply.
Around 6-7 million people live in Savar and Ashulia areas. House owners resort to illegal means for gas connection as no one wants to rent homes without gas. Taking this chance, local powerful people take Tk 70,000-100,000 to provide illegal gas connections through underhand dealings with unscrupulous contractors of Titas Gas.
Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, manager (marketing) of Savar zone of Titas Gas, said they conduct drives regularly to disconnect illegal lines. The drives were stopped due to coronavirus. Many people have taken illegal connection again at this chance. Drives will begin very soon.
There are allegations that several locally powerful people and brokers give illegal gas connections to homes in Keraniganj upazila of Dhaka as well. Titas disconnected some lines there too.
Hanif Member of Ghatarchar Arshinagar area and Liaqat Ali of Atibazar have allegedly taken money to give gas connections. Hanif Member called the allegation false while Liaqat said he would give the connection in a few days.
Drives and New Connections Go Together
Providing illegal gas connections in Gazipur, Tongi, Sreepur and Kaliakoir areas do not stop at all. Titas Gas authorities conduct drives in those areas to disconnect lines but some unscrupulous officials of Titas and brokers help people get the connections again.
Fire broke out at a classroom of Bhawal Mirzapur Degree College in Gazipur in September last year from an illegal gas connection. A case was filed against eight including Gazipur sadar upazila unit Awami League president Mosharraf Hossain for obstructing government work, issuing threats and providing and using illegal gas connections. Mosharraf has been saying this as a conspiracy against him.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Rajib Kumar Saha, deputy general manager of Titas Gas in Gazipur, said they have a 40-day plan to disconnect the illegal gas connections and take legal actions against the illegal users. That will be implemented soon.
Gazipur deputy commissioner SM Tariqul Islam said they always ask Titas Gas authority to conduct drives at every monthly meeting. “We always remain ready to conduct mobile court drives for them but they do not have any demand.”
Sufferings of the Legal Users
The gas crisis has taken a serious turn in homes and industries in Munshiganj. There are allegations that illegal connection sare being given with the help Titas Gas employees. As a result, the pressure of gas is low. The legal users have been paying bills every month but they are not getting due service.
Basirunnesa, a housewife from Uttar Islampur in Munshiganj sadar upazila, was seen cooking with firewood on Tuesday. She said they do not get gas most of the day. The problem becomes acute in the winter.
“We pay the gas bill every month but cook food using LPG cylinders,” said Junayed Mia, another user from Khalishta area.
Mesbah Uddin, manager of Titas Gas in Munshiganj, however said, “As far I know, there’s no illegal gas connection in Munshiganj. We have been conducting drives to cut those lines.”
Techniques of Turning Illegals into Legal
Titas Gas gave over 966,000 residential connections between 2014 and 2019 though residential connections were stopped that time. Of those connections, over 700,000 illegal connections were made legal in 2018 alone. Since then, another 266,000 more connections were given, showed the Titas Gas server. They are yet to be made legal in the company’s board meeting. However, all the 966,000 consumers are now depositing gas bills in the bank every month, revealed Titas’ annual report of 2018-19 fiscal.
Recently, 1,250 more residential gas connections were found in Badda zone in the capital. A step was taken to secretly add them in the central server of Titas Gas to make them legal. The consumers were submitting bills following their consumer serial numbers as well. When the authorities came to learn about it, a committee was formed to investigate the matter. Five officials and four security guards were suspended following the committee’s investigation. Seema Enterprise, a contracting firm, has been blacklisted for its involvement in setting illegal gas pipelines. A case has been filed too.
Titas Gas managing director Ali Md Al-Mamun said, “I was given charge last December. I have tried to make a list of illegal gas connections.”
System Loss or Stealing
System loss of Titas Gas has suddenly increased nearly five times. Annual report says, the system loss was 1.17 per cent in 2017-18 fiscal which has increased to 5.71 per cent in 2018-19 fiscal. The report of 2019-20 is yet to be compiled. The annual system loss is over Tk 7 billion.
Energy expert professor M Shamsul Alam said, “This is not system loss. This is stealing.” He alleged that high officials of Titas Gas are also involved in the process.
On 20 September 2018, Prothom Alo published a report ‘Bribes by the ‘kg’ in Titas Gas’. The report said, “These ‘kgs’ are no units of weight. These are actually coded words denoting bribes shared among top officials, including its managing director, of Titas Gas Transmission Company Limited, a state-owned gas distribution company. One ‘kg’ means Tk 100,000.”
Following the report, Anti-Corruption Commission began an investigation against five Titas Gas officials including then managing director Mir Mashiur Rahman, manager of a branch of pipeline design department Sabber Ahmed Chowdhury. An investigation of a case filed by the ACC is underway.
Professor M Shamsul Alam said Titas has turned into an unbridled monster. The company has to be reconstituted. There’s no other way to stop giving illegal gas connections.
* The report, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat and Shameem Reza