Endless wait for petrol turns life upside down for Sri Lankans

Sri Lanka

People following the 2022 Sri Lanka political-economy crisis will be able to decipher that the two are closely linked. Political eruptions in Sri Lanka since April have usually followed intense periods of economic shortages. In March there were crippling 12-hour power cuts, resulting in small demonstrations that culminated on 9 April when thousands gathered at the Galle Face Greens. This was the beginning of the Araghalaya. In April and early May intense shortages of cooking gas and food brought misery to millions. Although the violence of 9 May cannot be attributed to this – it was a group of Rajapaksa party workers who attacked the protestors – it led to violence that resulted in the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. The most recent protest action on July 9 – with its arresting visuals of people occupying the Presidential secretariat – follows a period of intense fuel scarcity.

The shortage of fuel has crippled life in Sri Lanka. Vehicles queue up for a kilometer or longer in every direction outside petrol pumps. There are separate queues for two wheelers, tuk tuks and four wheelers. Vehicle owners can obtain fuel twice a week according to the last digit of their number plates: Mondays and Tuesdays for number plates ending in 0,1,2; Tuesdays and Fridays for 3,4,5 and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for 6,7,8,9. People park their cars a day or two before, in order to get their quota on the assigned day, and even this is not assured. Typically, about 150 vehicles can be filled before a petrol pump runs out of fuel. People line up early the previous day and leave their cars overnight in order to maximize their chances of getting precious fuel.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe disruption to normal life is difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced extraordinarily long fuel queues. Waiting in queue has become the central organizing principle of one’s life in Sri Lanka. Everything else – work, family, friendships – have been rearranged around this. The physical and psychological toll is immense. At least 20 deaths have been documented in fuel queues at the height of the shortage in late June and early July, when waiting times of four and five days were not uncommon. People get mats and spread them out on the pavement next to their cars. This becomes a temporary work station as they spread their laptop and devices and take calls. People have reportedly given job interviews and got hired while waiting in the queues. New friendships and solidarities have been formed as people get deck chairs and exchange news and gossip while waiting for the queue to move. Invariably, politics and the state of the economy are discussed.

Peak oil and gas have been discussed ad nauseum by experts as the point where extraction of petroleum starts to decline. Numerous studies have pointed out that humanity needs to drastically decrease the consumption of climate-heating fossil fuels. However, any such exercise will have to take into account the calculus of energy use and political stability. Sri Lanka is a prime example of how political stability is closely linked to the availability or scarcity of economic resources. However, to be sure, Sri Lanka’s political crisis cannot solely be attributed to economics.

In 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigned to become the President of the Island nation. His campaign was racist and sought to project him as a techno-militarist who would solve Sri Lanka’s problems and turn it into another Singapore. In effect, Gotabaya was saying he would succeed where Parliament had failed. There was also the Easter Sunday bombings which had created an aura of fear among the Sinhalese majority. Gotabaya capitalized on this and became the President in a landslide electoral victory. His actions betrayed an autocratic mindset and contempt for Parliamentary procedure. In the 2020 Parliamentary elections his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna won a two thirds majority. This emboldened Gotabaya even more. A refusal to approach the International Monetary Fund as signs of an emerging economic crisis became visible, an overnight ban on chemical fertilizers and a massive tax cut and a programme of money printing to fill government coffers were some of the policy missteps. The cumulative effect of all these resulted in the economic collapse of Sri Lanka, followed by a political unraveling.

In the fuel queues none of this matters much. It is in the past and people are busy trying to get fuel in the present. The arrival of a fuel ‘bowser’ is greeted with great joy, because once the bowser empties its contents into the petrol pump’s tanks, the line will start moving. Four wheelers can fill up to LKR 7,000 at one go, and the allocation for cars is 20 liters a week. People get packed lunches and dinners and some stay overnight in their cars, while others go home and return the next morning. Staying in the cars is difficult in the July heat and humidity.

Sri Lanka’s reliance on imported fuels is what caused the crisis in the first place, but it cannot do without fossil fuels either. After Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005 and the civil war ended in 2009, a new economic strategy of constructing domestic infrastructure was prioritized and the export-oriented focus toned down. Massive roads, expressways and ports were built. New roads meant the purchase of new cars and an increase in fuel imports. Sri Lanka’s rising per capita income also meant that people were demanding more consumer goods, which had to be met through imports. Between 1990 and 2000 Sri Lanka’s net energy imports as a percentage of total energy use doubled from 20% to 40%. In 2021 the country spent $3.7 billion importing oil and coal. Sri Lanka has good potential for solar and wind power, but has not developed either. It generates a third of its power from imported oil, another third with imported coal and the rest from domestic hydropower.

And now Sri Lanka has run out of foreign exchange dollars to pay for imports. At last count, the country had barely $50 million of forex, and it had been shut out of international capital markets since it defaulted on its debt. The shortage of fuel is affecting its tourism industry, one of its largest revenue earners. Cabs are charging LKR 15,000 (USD40) for a trip from Negombo airport to Colombo, a distance of 30 kilometers. This is three times the price of just a year ago. A thriving black market has emerged where fuel is selling for LKR 2,000 to 3,000 a liter. The pump rate is LKR 450 for 92 octane petrol.

Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale of what happens when a nation’s basic political and economic processes are replaced by the mythology of a ‘glorious ancient past’,  religious nationalism or primal feelings of racial superiority. What matters ultimately to any modern-day population is what they need to survive in the present – food, fuel and electricity.

J.G.Pandit is a writer and journalist currently reporting from Sri Lanka          

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