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From hospital gate to upmarket store, fuel squeeze chokes Colombo

On the streets of Colombo, fewer private cars are plying, serpentine queues outside petrol stations are a common sight and most residents have been walking long distances, keeping the little fuel they have for an “emergency”.

Colombo, Sri Lanka news, Sri Lanka crisis, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ranil wickremesinghe, World news, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express NewsA patient is brought in a grocery delivery van to the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo on Friday night. Shubhajit Roy

🔴 An official who worked at former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office says she’s been trying her luck in the fuel queue for the past three days, without success.

🔴 Another official at former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office says he has “just enough” to get to the market. He used to get fuel from government sheds earlier but not after Rajapaksa fled.

🔴 A senior Sri Lankan diplomat has been working from home for the past week. “I walk to the stores nearby for daily needs,” the diplomat said.

🔴 A former diplomat, down with Covid, has saved up enough fuel to reach the hospital, if needed.

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The fuel shortage in Sri Lanka has hit the elite as well as common people.

On the streets of Colombo, fewer private cars are plying, serpentine queues outside petrol stations are a common sight and most residents have been walking long distances, keeping the little fuel they have for an “emergency”.

sri lanka Sri Lanka’s fuel shortage has been exacerbating its economic crisis. (Reuters)

Facing the brunt of this shortage are the capital’s hospitals. At 7 pm on Friday, when The Indian Express reached National Hospital of Sri Lanka, one of the largest government hospitals, doctors and nurses said many of them can’t turn up for work due to the shortage.

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They said the government has allowed priority access for medical professionals at fuel stations but it is too little for too many.

A senior doctor, who did not wish to be identified, said she has to change two buses to get to the hospital, and it is “extremely difficult”. “Many patients have been calling the free ambulance service to reach the hospital,” she said.

Outside, there were hardly any private vehicles, only ambulances arriving every 5-10 minutes and three-wheelers. One man drove up in a pick-up van, with his uncle lying on a mattress on the floor in the back. “I use the vehicle for bread and grocery deliveries, but today there was an emergency,” the driver said.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka news, Sri Lanka crisis, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ranil wickremesinghe, World news, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News People wait in a queue with empty cylinders to buy domestic gas at a distribution center in Colombo. (AP/PTI)

Dr Ananda Wijewickrama, a senior consultant at National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Colombo who was part of Lanka’s Covid task force, said, “The fuel crisis has had a significant impact, preventing doctors and nursing staff from coming to hospitals… The number of patients coming for regular check-ups, and elective surgeries and treatments, has also been impacted.”

In Colombo, the crisis has hit schools, too. Sanka, a 32-year-old housewife with two children, said, “The schools had been closed off and on for the past three months. Now they are saying that schools will open after the President’s election…because of power cuts, online classes are also difficult.”

Due to the shortage, fuel prices have risen nearly four-fold from last year. Despite marginal cuts announced on Sunday, diesel is up from SL Rs 106 last year to 440 per litre while petrol prices have risen from SL Rs 130 to 450 per litre. In the black market, petrol is being sold at about SL Rs 2,000 per litre — an Indian rupee is about SL Rs 4.50.

This has also led to a sharp rise in prices of household goods.

At Keells, an upmarket store in Colombo’s Union Place, The Indian Express compared the prices of different items — with the help of customers and the store manager — and found that they have increased almost five-fold over the past year, with some items being rationed.

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Sri Lanka crisis Due to the shortage, fuel prices have risen nearly four-fold from last year. (AP)

Posters on shelves limit each customer to one packet of milk powder, 2 kg of rice and 12 bottles of water. Essential products like milk powder, one of the highest selling items, are in short supply.

According to the manager and customers, the price list has changed dramatically over the past year: Potatoes (SL Rs 110/kg last year to SL Rs 520/kg now); onions (SL Rs 65 to 280), sugar (SL Rs 65 to 451), flour (SL Rs 160 to 350), rice (SL Rs 95-110 to 480) and eggs (SL Rs 13 to 55/egg).

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There’s more: Toilet roll (SL Rs 30-40/roll last year to SL Rs 215/roll now), Surf Excel detergent powder (SL Rs 350 to 980), Coca-Cola (SL Rs 110 to 390/litre), Maggi noodles (SL Rs 110 to 360/pack) and Lux soap (SL Rs 80 to 225/piece).

Rohana Hettiarachchi, an executive director at an election advocacy group, said his family has reduced consumption of fruits and fish. “My 17-year-old son loves apples and bananas, so we buy just enough fruits for him. If we are denying ourselves these basic needs, imagine the situation of the more vulnerable,” he said.

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sri lanka medicine Patients wait to receive drugs in a medicines issue counter at Colombo South Teaching Hospital. (Bloomberg)

In its latest situation report on Sri Lanka, issued on Friday, the World Food Programme said: “Skyrocketing food costs are making it harder… About 6.7 million people are not consuming adequate diets and 5.3 million people are reducing the number of meals eaten. To cope with the lack of food, 5 million people are using crisis or emergency livelihood coping strategies.”

Prof Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, professor of public transport planning and economics at Colombo University, blamed the fuel crisis on lack of foreign exchange. “The real cancer is the shortage of foreign exchange, and the fuel crisis is a symptom, which is visible on the surface,” he said, blaming successive governments for the current situation.

Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer and senior researcher at Centre for Policy Alternatives, said, “While the price rise has hit everyone, it has hit the vulnerable the most. Ambulances cannot reach some places due to lack of fuel.”

On Saturday, the Sri Lankan government said a fuel pass will soon be introduced to allocate “a guaranteed weekly fuel quota” with QR codes for each vehicle. “We have made requests (for fuel) to different countries. So, any country that comes to help us, we appreciate that. Right now, the Indian government is the only country that has provided us with a credit line,” Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara said.

So far, India has extended USD 3.8 billion in economic assistance to Sri Lanka — including fuel.

First published on: 18-07-2022 at 04:35:48 am
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