Sri Lanka ropes in troops to oversee fuel distribution amid crisis

Published - March 22, 2022 10:53 pm IST - COLOMBO

Sri Lanka’s Army members stand guard at a Ceylon Petroleum Corporation fuel station to help stations distribute oil during the fuel crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka March 22, 2022

Sri Lanka’s Army members stand guard at a Ceylon Petroleum Corporation fuel station to help stations distribute oil during the fuel crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka March 22, 2022 | Photo Credit: Reuters

Sri Lanka has roped in its army to oversee fuel distribution in the country, while citizens queue up for hours outside petrol and diesel stations due to a severe shortage as the country grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis.  

Two to four army personnel will be posted at every petrol shed of the State-run Celyon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), officials said on Tuesday. “They will not be carrying any weapons, it is purely to oversee and ensure the smooth distribution of available fuel,” army spokesman Brigadier Nilantha Premarathna told The Hindu. The CPC has over 1,000 fuel stations across the island.  

Military participation in civilian functions has remained a sensitive issue in post-war Sri Lanka, especially in the Tamil-majority north and east where army personnel can be frequently spotted, at times even regulating traffic. The army has been involved in agriculture, and more recently in the country’s pandemic response. Sri Lanka’s army chief General Shavendra Silva led a task force on COVID-19 and was later appointed to oversee the ‘Green Agriculture Operative Centre’, set up by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The UN Human Rights Chief has raised concern over the appointment of past and present military officials to bureaucratic positions.

Fuel crisis

The army will now also oversee fuel distribution across the country, amid a persisting short supply. Long rows of vehicles have become a common sight outside fuel stations. Over the past few days, at least four senior citizens died reportedly while waiting in queues. Local media also reported on clashes among customers at some fuel stations.

According to a recent media statement by CPC Chairman Sumith Wijesinghe, the daily demand — before the shortages — was about 5,500 metric tonnes of diesel and 3,300 metric tonnes of petrol. “Now due to excess buying, we have been issuing 7,000-8,000 MT of diesel and 4,200-4,500 MT of Petrol from CPC storage to the market in the past few days,” he said.

The disruption in Sri Lanka’s fuel supply is only one manifestation of the island nation’s rapid economic downturn over the last few months, with the pandemic severely impacting its foreign exchange generating sectors. The consequent dollar crunch has stalled the import of essentials, including food, fuel, and medicines. The Sri Lankan rupee fell further on Tuesday, to 272.06 to a U.S. dollar, or nearly 3.7 to ₹ 1, while the prices of basic items from milk powder and rice, to dal and coconut, are soaring.

Citizens’ groups and the political opposition have been protesting in different locations, blaming the government for the state of the country’s economy.  Sri Lanka obtained an Indian credit line for $ 500 million to cover emergency fuel supplies and has so far received two consignments of fuel from India that, authorities here expect, will ease the shortage.

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