A sensible move | Daily News

A sensible move

The Government has resorted to the rationing of fuel to overcome the chronic shortage of diesel, petrol and kerosene that has caused much hardship and oppression to the public. According to media reports, Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said the Government had no choice but to register consumers at filling stations and provide them with a guaranteed weekly quota until the situation improves.

With the present financial restrictions, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) imports fuel to manage for a week but consumers apparently collect fuel for a month or more for their machinery and generators. The Minister said the monthly fuel bill that was US$ 200 million four months ago is currently US$ 550 million. The quota system will come into effect from the first week of July.

Fuel rationing should have commenced much earlier, at the first signs of trouble. Had this happened, the situation would have been brought to manageable levels by now. The people too should have been taken into confidence at the very outset and made to understand the crisis.

After all, Lankans had to undergo worse privations and oppressive conditions during World War II but bore with the rulers in full appreciation of the dire situation. Instead, the steady inflow of Indian Credit to purchase food and fuel at the beginning led to complacency, with the people made to believe that foreign aid will continue to pour in an unending stream. Now the public is being told that Indian aid will dry up in a few weeks and the next fuel shipment could be expected only on June 16. Will the country be able to manage until then? Why wait for July to implement the quota? Why not do it immediately?

Judging by the long queues near the filling stations it will hardly be surprising if fuel stocks do not dry up any time soon and with a time lag before the mid-June shipment is fully unloaded there is bound to be zero fuel stocks at least for a few days bringing the country to a virtual standstill.

It is better late than never and the Minister must ensure that the quota system is not abused. It should be implemented to the letter. The picking of consumers should be done strictly from within the area and there should be no sleight of hand as in the case of school admissions where documents are doctored. The Minister also says that priority will be given to passenger/goods transport and industries in the fuel quota system.

Here too a dicey situation is bound to arise. While public transport should be given first preference, other forms of transport too should be equally considered. All forms of transport are integral to livelihoods. The Dedicated Economic Centres (DECs) in Dambulla, Narahenpita, Meegoda, Thambuttegama and Keppetipola are receiving only a fraction of their previous produce due to the lack of fuel to transport vegetables and other crops from farms. The fertilizer crisis and the absence of fuel for tractors have also resulted in farmers moving away from crop cultivation, which is bound to aggravate the food crisis in the coming days. The quota system is also bound to affect the School Van industry since these vans need a steady supply of fuel to transport children to school daily.

Although Minister Wijesekera assured Parliament that the kerosene supply has returned to normal, there still are mile-long queues to obtain kerosene with fisticuffs and other incidents of chaos breaking out in these queues with the Police and Army completely helpless in bringing things under control. With the LP Gas supply too reaching a stalemate for want of dollars (a Litro Gas ship is lying anchored in the seas near the Colombo Port awaiting the release of US$ 2.5 million dollars for unloading, for the last three days, with demurrage costs too multiplying with each passing day), the situation can only get worse.

Hence, careful thought should be given in the implementation of the quota system lest the present unrest gets aggravated over accusations of selective treatment of one segment over another. The implementation of the quota system also could lead to other issues. For instance, the working days of Public Servants would have to be curtailed further due to restrictions in mobility due to the limited fuel supply to all vehicles and public transport. In the alternative, public servants will have to come to work on push cycles - a concept that is increasingly promoted by Government Ministers with incentives on offer. The latest to ask Public Servants to use push cycles to get to work is Transport Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena who has also promised to design special tracks on the main highways for this purpose. Already it is reported that even persons from Executive Grades in the Public and Private Sectors including academics and University Lecturers are using this mode of transport. If the practice catches on, this could be one of the solutions for the fuel crisis. Of course, every possible avenue should be explored to overcome the present situation before the country reaches a point of no return.

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