Fire-fighters are among the bravest souls. They willingly risk their lives so that the life and property of other folks may be saved. This is why people around the world hold them in such high regard. On Wednesday, two such brave fire-fighters, Yadav Adhikari and Madhusudan Mishra, were burnt to death while three of their other colleagues were severely injured while they were trying to douse the massive fire at a Birgunj-based gas bottling plant. The Super Gas Industry broke every rule in the safety book. It was set up near human settlements. It didn’t have any set mechanism on how to deal with a fire at the plant. The gas leakage that caused the fire, investigators now find, could have been avoided. The settlements around the bottling plant are in a state of terror following the massive fire. But it is not just our LPG bottling plants that are unsafe. The same is the case with our petrol pumps, again characterized my minimal precaution and uncomfortable proximity to inhabited homes. Also questionable is the quality of the LPG cylinders in the market, most of which have repeatedly been found to be substandard and thus liable to explode.
The way LPG bottlers and petrol pumps have been allowed to so blatantly jeopardize people’s wellbeing says a lot about the accountability of our governments and state organs. There are laws in place that, for instance, bar the construction of an LPG bottling plant within a five-km radius of human settlement. Similar laws are applicable to the placement of petrol pumps. Yet these laws are being brazenly broken, it is suspected, largely because senior government officials and bureaucrats are working in cahoots with the LPG and fuel industries, allowing them to illegally operate in populated areas. The same nexus between politicians and LPG bottlers is responsible for the widespread availability of cheap and accident-prone cylinders in the market. This open disregard and callousness for public safety are breathtaking, really. None of our gas companies has the ‘explosives license’, which can only be had after the companies are deemed technically safe for operation. This kind of licensing is common practice around the world. But, in Nepal, even the regulatory body that is supposed to issue this license has not been established. For all that we know, many of us might have ticking time-bombs in our kitchens.
Yes, the tragic events this past Wednesday that led to the deaths of two fire-fighters should serve as a wake-up call to whip the government into action. But most likely they will have little impact whatsoever on government functioning. Blasts of compromised gas cylinders have over the years claimed hundreds of lives. No sooner do these deaths stop making headlines, they tend to be conveniently forgotten until the next explosion again causes public uproar. We can safely say that no government after the 1990 change has been truly accountable to the people, the attention of our MPs and politicians always consumed by dirty power games and ways to enrich themselves as well as their vast patronage networks. But people are getting increasingly aware of their shenanigans. Exposing all those who put public safety at risk is the first step towards meaningful reform. The next step must be to push for their criminal prosecution.