Sri Lanka minister asks people not to queue for fuel for two days

Island’s power and energy minister ‘respectfully’ advises against forming queues, saying there are no sufficient petrol stocks.

Autorickshaw drivers queue for fuel
Autorickshaw drivers queue for fuel in Colombo [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – M Jiffry, 35, a resident of Borella in Sri Lanka’s main city of Colombo, has been standing in a queue with his motorcycle at a fuel station with hundreds of others for more than a day now.

Jiffry, a father of two and an Uber Eats driver, relies solely on his day’s income.

For Sri Lankans like Jiffry, waiting in queues for essential items has become the new normal amid the worst economic crisis in the island nation since its independence from British rule in 1948.

“I have been staying for hours to pump petrol, for months. But now it is much worse. It is more than a day and there is still no sign of getting petrol. I am tired and hungry,” he told Al Jazeera.

Jiffry says he has not had a proper meal – like many other drivers in the same queue – for nearly 25 hours. He said he does not want to take the risk of leaving the queue to grab something to quench his hunger.

“Someone else will take my spot and then I have to start all over again,” he said.

Sri Lanka does not have enough foreign currency to buy necessities such as fuel, cooking gas, food and even medicine.

Earlier on Wednesday, the island’s power and energy minister urged people not to form queues as there were no sufficient petrol stocks. He added that providing fuel has become a “hard task”.

“Do not stay [in queues]. Even if you stay, we have no way of providing fuel for the next two days. Therefore, we ask respectfully and kindly to not stay in queues for these two days,” Kanchana Wijesekera said in parliament.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also addressed the parliament on Wednesday, saying the country does not even have a million dollars in foreign currency to pay for its imports.

According to the statistics he shared, Sri Lanka currently needs $530m to import fuel. The World Bank has provided the country with $160m and the government is discussing if the money could be used to pay for the much-needed fuel.

In a double whammy to hit the Sri Lankans, Litro, the country’s main LPG supplier, announced on Wednesday that its distribution is affected due to delay in the unloading of stock caused by inclement weather.

Wijesekera urged the public to not stand in LPG queues as well.

S Yoga Lechchami, a 30-year-old mother of two from Mirihana, told Al Jazeera she was not prepared for the LPG shortage when she left home with her “prawn wadé” (a street food) cart last night.

After serving the first few customers, she ran out of cooking gas. “My husband walked for hours looking for gas or even kerosene oil but returned empty-handed,” she said.

Street vendor stands behind her food stall
Lechchami said she cannot even imagine what ‘more sacrifices’ – as suggested by the Sri Lankan PM – will be like for her and her family [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Lechchami said she cannot afford to throw away unsold food. Already paying back a loan she obtained to buy the cart, she must pocket more to pay for the raw material.

“Everything is expensive now. Prices of prawns increase by the day. How am I going to feed my children and run this business? I don’t know what to do any more,” she said.

Across the island, angry protests over fuel and gas shortages continued, according to local media reports, with demonstrators blocking roads in several cities to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Amid deadly protests last week, the president’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister. But his resignation has not placated the protesters who blame the powerful Rajapaksa clan for the country’s crisis and want them to quit politics.

Eran Wickramaratne, a parliamentarian belonging to the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, said a precondition for economic stability is political stability and “an acceptable and credible government”.

“We still don’t have that. The new government is not yet formed. We can’t form a government largely out of Rajapaksas. It won’t really help,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The fundamental issues have not been addressed. We need a reshuffle of largely the existing government that was in power for the past two and a half years. The outcry in Sri Lanka is that the Rajapaksas have to go. But what we see is that the Rajapaksas are very much in power,” Wickramaratne said.

On Monday, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe warned the coming months will be the “most difficult” for Sri Lanka. “We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period,” he said.

Lechchami said she cannot even imagine what “more sacrifices” will be like for her and her family.

Political analyst Dr Aruna Kulatunga painted a rather reassuring picture. “Our biggest issues will remain the payment of the International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) and possibly some of the multilateral balloon payments during the next six months,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said finance minister Ali Sabry and prominent opposition legislator Dr Harsha de Silva, along with Wickremesinghe, will be working to appoint a legal and financial negotiation teams for debt restructuring before the end of this week.

Along with debt restructuring, he said, the inflows from tourism and expatriate earnings are also showing a limited but gradual uptick.

“With these positive signs, most sectors of the economy will recover in the medium term but unless and until realistic and practical political reforms come in very urgently, long-term recovery is yet uncertain,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera