Queues Here to ‘Stay’!

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The queue sector, a phenomenon that has emerged to dominate Sri Lanka’s political and socioeconomic landscape after a lapse of 44 years, since last year, is here to ‘stay’!

The cause, as virtually everyone knows, is the spiriting away of the country’s spartan US dollar reserves due to corruption at the highest level. And the result, insufficient dollars to import ‘essentials’ including medicines, food, fuel, cooking gas among others as Sri Lanka is an import- dependent economy.

A glimmer of hope in this ‘loom & doom’ scenario is that the poor and the vulnerable, to a certain extent, will be looked after by the international community (IC) vis-à-vis the provision of food and medicines, but aid to buy fuel and cooking gas will however not be available.

Fuel and cooking gas prices, with the exception of kerosene, are market driven. But, despite being market driven, therewith demanding ‘sky high’ rupee prices, they are unavailable due to the lack of dollars to import the same. The same goes with regard to the import of fossil fuel like diesel and coal needed for electricity generation.

Therefore, the lack of dollars also means the continuation of daily power cuts which are entering its record eighth month this month, having been a virtually continuous feature since December 2021. Fuel and cooking gas queues have also been a regular feature at least since December 2021 or even earlier.

The irony of the current cooking gas, diesel, petrol and kerosene queues seen at fuel stations, including cooking gas distribution outlets islandwide, is that other than kerosene, the rest of the pricings of fuel are all market driven.  Therefore, the obvious reason for these shortages is not necessarily due to supply being inadequate to meet demand, but due to the lack of dollars domestically, led by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), to import such essential supplies/ fuels.

In the meantime, ‘queue deaths’ have been a regular feature at ‘fuel queues’, recording at least one ‘fuel queue death’ monthly since December on average. This is unsurprising, considering the fact that the masses have to wait for days in such queues, exposed to the elements, with no food and water, and cash to buy such essentials, and, in a number of instances, returning empty handed.

Another factor that has to be taken in respect of the ‘queue masses’ is that while waiting in those queues for days with the hope of obtaining those essentials, their other responsibilities, including being present at the workplace are neglected, with threats of pay cuts and in the worst case scenario, even the loss of jobs.

The IC not aiding Sri Lanka to import fuel is unsurprising. This is because of fears of corruption. Currently, the Government of India (GoI) subsidiary, Lanka Indian Oil Corporation plc,  has diesel and petrol supplies in their sheds, albeit in limited quantities in the few they  operate countrywide, though, unable to meet demand. Nonetheless, even though limited, LIOC is able to make such fuel available to the masses because it has the backing of the GoI.

 Though LIOC’s counterpart, State-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has the backing of the GoSL, the difference between the GoI and the GoSL is that while the former has dollars, the latter doesn’t.

And, whatever dollars that GoSL possesses via exports and remittances proceeds, those have not only to be used for fuel imports, but for the import of other essentials as well, including raw materials needed for processing and re-export, like fabric for the garment export industry.

Therefore, if there is no change of Government to instil confidence in the IC who possess the greenbacks to bailout Sri Lanka, the ‘queue’ saga  will continue, in particular in respect of the procurement of cooking gas and other fuels  like petrol, diesel and kerosene with more ‘queue’ deaths to  follow.

  In the same vein, daily power cuts too will be part of Sri Lanka’s political and socioeconomic fabric, like it’s today, at least until there is a change of Government, or, in the unlikelihood of the present Government prosecuting itself for the sins of omission and commission committed by it, that has led to the present situation.