Ordinary citizens left ‘high and dry’

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Twenty-two million Sri Lankans are presently in dire straits. People are altering their lifestyles. Switching from a gas stove to a wood stove, a light bulb to a candle, a motorcycle to a bicycle, three daily meals to two meals, and a day job to being unemployed.

People aged 19 to 73 are sacrificing their lives in fuel queues. None of them have set eyes on a dollar or obtained fuel without paying for it. Sri Lankans are experiencing a literal apocalypse due to the ‘economic meltdown.’

On one side, people lose their lives in fuel queues, and on the other, people run a black market. Police regularly arrest fuel hoarders. But wasn’t it the legislators who created a black market?

Cash-strapped Sri Lanka is presently hunting high and low for fuel and citizens have no choice. More heated exchanges than ever before have occurred islandwide as a result of the Cabinet’s decision to provide fuel solely for essential services.

What awaits those in queues?

On 25 June, at 10:00 p.m., Ravindra, a full-time three-wheeler driver, joined a fuel line in Colombo Centre. He had Rs 3,000 in his pocket at the time, enough to pump a decent quantity of fuel. He was unable to pump fuel on this date and heard that fuel rates will be increased at midnight on 26 June. As he only had Rs 3,000 in his possession, Ravindra failed to secure enough fuel to run hires.

Shanmugam, a car owner, joined a queue at an LIOC fuel station on 24 June. From that time, till 27 June evening, he did not receive any fuel, and even witnessed a death. Cabinet ordered private vehicles to return home on 10 July and decided not to supply fuel to non-essential services until 27 July, but Shanmugam did not leave the queue.

Failure of token system

Despite the Government’s announcement that a token system will be used to end queues, tokens were not distributed in a majority of fuel stations located in major cities, where long lines can be observed. The introduction of the token system followed the news that no fuel shipments would be arriving in Sri Lanka anytime soon. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera announced the token system on 26 June during a Media briefing. However, Cabinet decided to stop providing fuel to private vehicles on 27 June, leaving those who queued for 72 hours high and dry.

More hours of human labour are lost as a result of the Government’s failure to implement its energy policy and to make timely decisions.

However, even after the Cabinet decision, lines did not shorten nor did people disperse. Why? Some Colombo-based fuel stations have said fuel will arrive, but have never instructed customers to disperse or given them a token.

Perera, a father of three and a full-time three-wheeler driver from Panadura, objected to getting a token and refused to leave, after waiting for over 50 hours at a CPC fuel station. As he joined the queue, he said if he was unable to secure fuel, he wouldn’t be able to return home.

The proprietor of a fuel station in Colombo has made plain that they would not use the token system, as it will increase racial animosity. He claimed that because people wouldn’t want to follow it, implementing a token system, ration system, or even releasing fuel for a set period of time was impossible. Except for standing in line, people will defy any other instructions of the Government.

Disregarding Government’s decision

Trucks, private buses, vans, cars, three-wheelers, and motorcycles were among the vehicles that could be seen in the lines. Both at CPC and LIOC fuel stations, these lines have been present for the previous few weeks. There were queues at CPC fuel stations, although no fuel bowser was in sight, and some LIOC fuel stations delivered fuel using a token system.

Working out priorities

When the Government decided to limit the use of fuel to only essential services, there was widespread public condemnation. What constitutes essential services is debatable. Cabinet Spokesman, Bandula Gunawardena asserted that agriculture, healthcare, and air travel are considered essential services. Prior to the statement, however, Wijesekera asserted that the health sector is given the opportunity to receive fuel pumped from certain local fuel stations on Fridays.

But it was never put into practice. Behind fuel stations, a few health officials were seen standing with documents proving their credentials. It is still unclear how the Government classifies things.

Meanwhile, due to the islandwide fuel scarcity, which led the Government to decide that only vital services would run until 10 July, all schools in Colombo and other significant cities around the nation have been closed for two weeks.

Even though the Administration had already declared that some schools would be closed for a week, the closures were extended on Monday. How lessons are taught to children when schools are closed will be decided by school principals and provincial education authorities. The operation of schools in other places will be decided by local education officials and school administrators. It was uncertain whether students attending school was still necessary in Sri Lanka.

Save the Children’s Director of Programmes in Sri Lanka, Ranjan Weththasinghe, said it was time for the international community to show solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.

“Closing schools not only locks children out of education, but often also robs them of the only decent meal they get each day. We know that 50 per cent of families are really struggling to support their children’s education and some children are already dropping out of school and going hungry daily. Parents should not have to choose between buying data for online classes and buying food. We’re at risk of taking a huge step backwards on child nutrition and education in Sri Lanka, which would be an absolute tragedy. This worsening economic crisis could impact Sri Lanka’s children for possibly years to come. Children are the future and their needs must be the priority,” he said.

Police patrol

Police created an application to track car refuelling at the end of May, as the Nation continued to experience long lines and reports of shady hoarding and a thriving black market were widespread. This application is presently being trialled islandwide.

A warning was issued that anyone who fills their cars up more than once will face arrest. However, it was observed that Police Officers stationed at fuel stations were watching the vehicles from across the station. A quick chat with a Police Officer in charge of an LIOC fuel station in Colombo 7 revealed that they aren’t there to see if the stations are breaking the law or find people who are hoarding fuel. Instead, they are there to fill up. He claimed that they lack the authority to prosecute fuel station owners who pump more petrol into a vehicle than is legally allowed or to look into the existence of a black market.

But as soon as the fuel bowser arrived, many Police Officers were seen riding bicycles rather than service vehicles to one of Colombo 7’s main fuel stations. Every Police Officer who arrived on a bicycle did not queue. About 30 bicycles were in line. They claimed that fuel was essential. The public became agitated when they received fuel, and there were some heated exchanges.

However, the proprietor of the filling station politely asked that Police Officers join the line to purchase fuel, saying that otherwise the public would suffer injustice.

(Pix By Kelum Chamara)

Introducing fuel caps

Since CPC fuel stations were unable to operate islandwide due to the worsening energy crisis, Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, kept its stations operational at all times.

According to an LIOC representative, they provided fuel to owners of private vehicles, but had to restrict the supply owing to demand.

Thus, the amount of fuel that can be given to motorbike owners will be limited to Rs 1,500, three-wheelers to Rs 2,500, and vehicles to Rs 7,000. In a statement, the company expressed their sincere sorrow for the inconvenience to the public.

Meanwhile, LIOC will continue to supply fuel for non-essential service vehicles even if the Government-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has stopped doing so until 10 July. LIOC General Manager, Manoj Gupta, assured that the oil company remains unaffected by these restrictions, and will continue to distribute fuel to all non-essential service vehicles via the ‘token system.’

Sri Lanka’s appeal for fuel

Minister Kanchana Wijesekera met Qatar’s Minister of State for Energy Affairs and Qatar Energy President and CEO Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi. The two Ministers discussed the possibility of supplying petroleum products to Sri Lanka, in a bid to overcome the energy crisis through the assistance of Qatar Energy and the Qatar Development Fund. Wijesekera said discussions centred around a possible credit line for petroleum and gas and was informed that funds have been allocated by Qatar for medical supplies and it will consider the request for a credit facility and support the IMF programme.

Meanwhile, Cabinet approval was granted to allow companies from oil-producing countries to enter the fuel import and retail sales market. Minister Wijesekera tweeted that they will be chosen based on their ability to import fuel and operate, without the assistance of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and other commercial banks, for the first few months of operation.

The CPC contributes around 90 per cent of the total fuel supply to the country, while the remaining 10 per cent is supplied by the Lanka Indian Oil Company. Ensuring an uninterrupted fuel supply to the country has become a challenge due to the present foreign exchange crisis in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it seems appropriate to enter into long-term agreements with oil companies in the oil-producing countries to enable them to import and sell fuel using their funds, so as not to put pressure on the country’s foreign reserves.

Therefore, Cabinet approved the proposal to sign long-term agreements with selected companies, allowing them to import, distribute, and market fuel in Sri Lanka.

By Thameenah Razeek