While the fate of the no-confidence motion against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains a topic of conjecture in a fractious land, it is an index to the crippling fuel shortage that schools have been shut in Colombo and public employees asked to work from home. Monday’s drastic measures are a faint echo of the closures enforced two years ago to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Troops across the embattled country handed tokens to people queueing for petrol amidst a severe shortage in the nation battling its worst economic crisis in seven decades.
With its foreign exchange reserves at a record low, the island nation of 22 million is struggling to pay for essential imports of food, medicine and most critically, fuel. “I have been in line for four days, I haven’t slept or eaten properly during this time,” said autorickshaw driver W.D. Shelton, 67, one of those who received a token meant to hold his place in the queue when fuel becomes available. “We can’t earn, we can’t feed our families,” added Shelton, who was 24th in line at a fuel station in the heart of Colombo, but set to stay there as he had no petrol for the journey to his home just 5 km away. His predicament just about symbolizes that of the populace generally.
It was not immediately clear how far the government could stretch its fuel reserves. The stockpiles stand at about 9,000 tonnes of diesel and 6,000 tonnes of petrol, Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said on Sunday, but no fresh shipments are due. The government has told employees to work from home until further notice, while schools have been shut for a week in the capital of Colombo and surrounding areas. Fuel station queues have grown rapidly since last week. “This is a tragedy, we don’t know where this will end,” said a prospective consumer. It is hard not to wonder whether Sri Lanka bears witness to a tragedy without end.
Current stocks of fuel will be exhausted in just under a week, based on regular demand. Public transport, power generation and medical services will get priority in fuel distribution, with some rationed to ports and airports. A team from the International Monetary Fund is visiting Sri Lanka to hold talks on a $3-billion bailout package. Although the Indian Ocean nation is hoping to reach a staff-level agreement before the visit ends on Thursday, that is unlikely to unlock any immediate funds. The government is negotiating with the IMF on a possible bailout, but many are not in a position to wait that long and the demand for passports has surged.
A high-level US delegation on Monday met President Rajapaksa ~ a lame-duck Head of State and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss measures to cope with an unprecedented economic crisis that has blighted the island-nation. Until solutions are found, citizens will have to pay for their leaders’ follies.