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Chickens have come home to roost

When employees are in fuel queues and not reporting to work, there is zero productivity.

Sanjeewa Jayaweera | New Delhi |

The fuel shortage, currently being experienced across Sri Lanka, is causing severe distress and incredible frustration to the public. It has graduated to an extent previously not experienced nor seen in at least Colombo and the suburbs.

I believe most people have been in queues for as long as four to five days, and many have still been unable to purchase any fuel. That this is taking place when gainfully employed people should be at work with their shoulder to the wheel is outrageous. When employees are in fuel queues and not reporting to work, there is zero productivity. This will undoubtedly severely affect those engaged in business and the country’s economy.

The Government of Sri Lanka has decided to limit the working week of public servants to just four days, with no corresponding adjustment to their remuneration. Many working in the private sector, whose taxes foot the public sector salary bill, are not pleased.

The question is, where do we go next? Is it sensible to expect the situation to improve or further deteriorate? I recall reading and watching some TV footage about 18 months ago of the evolving fuel crisis in Lebanon, where people were waiting for several days to purchase 20 litres of fuel. There, too, people parked their vehicles in the queue and went home. Unfortunately, I believe the situation has not improved since then.

So, it may well be that we, too, in Sri Lanka, will need to learn and adapt to the fact that our dwindling foreign currency will never enable us in the future to drive to the fuel station whenever we want, pump whatever we need, and then to drive to our heart’s content.

Professor Amal Kumarage of the University of Moratuwa, a transport sector professional with over 35 years of experience in academia, government, and consulting, proposed, during a discussion on TV, that the country needs to develop a demand plan in line with supply. He suggested that the public need to reassess their travel needs, and arrive at a sensible requirement that will be in line with supply. According to the Prime Minister, the country will have fuel stocks to supply only 50 per cent of demand in the future.

In such a scenario, the requirements of industries supporting the economy need foremost priority, together with public transport providers like the Railways and Buses (government and private). We also need to ensure that the health services, be it hospitals and ambulances, fall within the priority sectors.

Whilst the above allocation must be done by the state, the most critical choices will need to be made by the public. The question is, how many of us would be willing to make that choice? Many of us have got used to dropping and picking up our children from school by either car or van. There is no doubt that in the future this will not be possible.
I know most parents will find this an intolerable choice to make. This despite those of us who attended school before the 1980s traveling by bus. The world has since changed, and most parents with school-going daughters will find it difficult to reconcile with the thought of young girls having to parry away the sickos who harass females using public transport.

That many of us will have to forgo many journeys we undertook by vehicle is a fact. The sooner we accept it, the better it would be for our well-being. One can feel the raw tension when driving past fuel stations with long queues. Instances when those patiently waiting in the queue have been incensed by a few who try to jump the line, are rising. People have also resorted to blocking the roads and preventing vehicular traffic, which is not a desirable course of action. Whatever the frustrations might be, law and order need to be maintained.

A friend of mine who is a professional, has bought a cycle and pedals 14 kilometers to work, a couple of days a week. The distance is one way, and he mentioned that it takes him one hour to cycle whilst the car journey is 45 minutes. His wife, a medical practitioner, working in a hospital, does the same.

The big question is how many are realistic and sensible enough to accept the inevitable. No doubt most will not be able to cycle, but will need to depend on travelling by bus and rail. It is the responsibility of the government to improve such services. I recall an initiative to commence canal transport in Colombo a few years back. That either the government or the commuters did not vigorously pursue it is regrettable. There is no better time than now to recommence it. What priority should be given to the three-wheelers is a moot point for debate. It is a form of employment for nearly a million drivers who, in turn, will be supporting another two to three million of the population, requiring them to be considered for special treatment.

Hopefully, the industry will be better regulated, and drivers will be better disciplined.Getting back to those of us who own vehicles, the choices are limited. There has been a proposal by a former minister that vehicles with engine capacities exceeding 2000CC be banned from the road. The initial reaction of many might be adverse. However, given that the fuel consumption of such vehicles is less than desired, there is a need for greater discussion. Maybe the annual revenue license for such cars should be more than Rs. One Million? If we go that way, the President, Prime Minister, and all Ministers should be banned from travelling in such vehicles. There should be no option for them to pay the high revenue license as the taxpayer ultimately bears such expenses.

There is no doubt that whatever action is taken by the government and the public, it will be less than desirable. Many of us will be unhappy and question life’s purpose under these tough choices we will have to make. Our lifestyle will be taken back several decades. We may well need to accept that, as a country, we were pretending to live a lifestyle far in excess of our capabilities and wealth. The phrase “the chickens have come home to roost ” is quite apt in the current circumstances.

The Island/ANN.