Buying LPG on the black market

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-08-01

We cook on a stove that burns LPG stored in a 30Kg metal cylinder under the kitchen counter. Yesterday, the cylinder ran out of gas while we were cooking pasta, with guests expected to arrive in a few minutes.

Whenever that happens—which is every couple of months or so—we rotate a second cylinder into use, call up the distributor to place an order, and wait, often for several days, until a new cylinder is delivered and the empty one taken away. To our horror, we discovered last night that both our cylinders were empty (no doubt because I had swapped one out some months ago and forgotten to order a replacement). Waiting without gas was not an option.

We happen to live across the road from the depot at which all three LPG distributors in the area store cylinders. They are delivered to nearby houses by people on bicycles, or further away in little three-wheeled carriers (like auto-rickshaws, but with a container for cargo). There are always some delivery people hanging around on the road outside the depot, and fortunately for us, that stretch of the road is the centre of a thriving black-market trade in LPG cylinders.

Everyone needs LPG, but not everyone can produce enough documentation to qualify for a "connection" from a distributor. Then there are people who need more gas than the one-cylinder-per-month limit allows, which may be because they cook more than thrice as much as we do at home, or because they're abusing a "domestic" connection for commercial purposes. In any case, the delivery people can sneak cylinders out of the supply chain for a premium, so long as you give them an empty one to replace it.

Just ask anyone there, they'll just charge twenty bucks or so over the usual price, said Hassath. Don't agree if they want more than fifty extra. So I crossed the road and headed towards three people in blue uniforms resting in the shade of a tree, next to bicycles with three cylinders fastened precariously to them. I wasn't sure how to approach the subject, so I asked where the new Indane distributor's office was. They told me, and said it would be closed on a Sunday, and asked me if I'd run out of gas.

To my surprise, one of the men remembered me, and knew where I lived. I guess he must have delivered a (conventionally ordered) cylinder or two to our house in the past. I tried to look pathetic as I told him we had no gas at all. You could order a cylinder tomorrow and wait for a few days…, the man said. Then he came a few steps closer, as the others began to wheel their bicycles away to make their deliveries. Or you could buy a cylinder 'in black'. (I'm translating from Hindi, but the "black" was in English).

How much? Four hundred and fifty, he said, but you can give me four hundred. That's a bit less than a hundred rupees over the regular price, so I reluctantly told him I would book the gas the normal way. He wasn't in the least bit perturbed, and smiled politely as I returned home, mindful of Hassath's certainty about the price margin, although I thought the price was more than worth it.

When I got home, however, Hassath confessed that the last time she found out the price of an "informal" gas cylinder was five years ago; and she allowed that the margin may have grown a bit since then. She did not want to wait for a cylinder either, and didn't mind spending hundred rupees extra. So I set out again, this time with an empty cylinder on my shoulder, dreading the conversation ahead. I found my friend in the same place, and he asked no questions about my change of heart.

Oh, why did you bring the cylinder? I would have come and taken it from your house, he said. Now go home, I'll bring you the new cylinder soon. The replacement arrived, true to his word, no more than ten minutes after I got home.

Later, I realised that he must have imagined my "wife" berating me. What do you mean you didn't buy one? Get back out there and don't come back until you have a new cylinder! Perhaps he felt sorry for me.

If only I'd thought of it earlier, I'd have waited outside the door.