Locals have been risking life for 16 years, yet decline to identify the group behind the illegal business
Tahmina Akhter, a housewife at Bakail village in Brahmanbaria Sadar, has been enjoying her cooking after she began to use natural gas instead of firewood as fuel.
But at the same time, she worries about her family's safety since she gets the gas supply through plastic pipes installed on tree branches. An accident may occur any time from such gas pipelines.
An unauthorised section in the area has employed the dangerous process to supply gas to several hundred households in Bakail for 16 years.
They charge the "customers" Tk250-Tk400 every month for a single burner.
They first collect the gas from the upper layers of the earth's crust through a tube-well. Accumulated in a drum, the gas is then separated from groundwater with the use of a pipe.
The source of this shallow gas is the third well of the Titas Gas Field that got leaked while drilling. The leaked gas spread to tube-wells, riverbanks and even to front yards of village houses.
After repeatedly failing to stop the leakage, the state-run Bangladesh Gas Fields Company Limited (BGFCL) stopped all operations in the well in 2007.
The move reduced gas leakage but not before a significant amount had spread to nearby areas and risen high enough to be extracted with tube-wells.
As the gas has spread to the doorsteps of some houses, even some villagers are collecting it in the same manner as used by the unscrupulous syndicate in the locality.
This new gas reserve has been termed as "pocket gas" by the BGFCL. Due to its proximity to earth's surface and irregular gas flow, the gas producing firm cannot set up a plant to extract it.
However, as the reserve is small, the BGFCL expects that it would die out within two to three years.
Till then, cautionary signposts have been set up in some of the areas where the gas is found the most.
When asked about the inadequate preventive measures, the BGFCL referred to the Bakhrabad Gas Distribution Company Ltd for answers, which in turn referred back to the BGFCL.
The Bakhrabad Gas Distribution Company Ltd distributes the gas produced by the BGFCL to Brahmanbaria, Cumilla and other nearby districts.
Shafiqul Haq, the manager of the Brahmanbaria branch of the Bakhrabad Gas Distribution Company Ltd, said the shallow gas reserve is beyond anyone's control while even the emission points cannot be marked with certainty.
However, the pressure and thus the reserve of the gas are falling gradually, he added.
Except for Ashuganj and Sarail upazilas and the Brahmanbaria municipality, no other part in the district has any gas connection. For this reason, the new gas supply – though highly risky – has been hailed by the people in many villages around the Titas Gas Field.
The "risky innovative process" is used the most in Bakail among other villages, and it also gets the biggest share of the gas supply.
The Business Standard visited different spots along the Titas river and found an unauthorised group collecting the gas.
The local administration has so far failed to detect members of the group as the villagers make no mention of them.
The illegal and risky aerial supply lines on treetops are removed through mobile court drives. However, they find their way up by the next morning.
The locals use the gas in an impression that the supply is risky and irregular only because it lacks the government authorisation. They demand the government's intervention to ensure its safety.
However, the BGFCL claims the entire reserve is life-threatening. In this situation, no extraction is possible through plants, sources at the BGFCL said.
Alamgir Miah, a resident at Bakail village, said at the beginning, villagers could get uninterrupted supply of gas through the connection. But then the people from the government started to disconnect the supply time and again and made it difficult for housewives to cook with ease.
Since the connection is evidently risky, the government should take corrective measures to this end and then approve it for seamless use.
The illegal line is also used to supply gas to some lime and bangle factories in the village.
Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Brahmanbaria Sadar Pankaj Barua said a syndicate provides the gas illegally to consumers but none in the village is ready to reveal the names.
"We regularly conduct drives to sever these illegal lines. Soon, we would also be able to catch the culprits behind this illegal and dangerous business," he added.