When ineptitude fuels panic
Posted on November 5th, 2017

The country is experiencing a petrol shortage, which the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) has attributed to panic buying owing to the recent rejection of a substandard fuel shipment. Winding queues near fuel stations remind us of the ubiquitous paan polim (‘bread queues’) under the SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77). The CPC has rejected several fuel shipments on similar grounds during the past decade or so but such action did not trigger panic buying of this scale. The government is all at sea, unable to handle the situation.

The problem with the present administration is that its ministers are busy poking their scratchy noses into others’ affairs to the neglect of their duties and functions. Petroleum Resources Development Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is preoccupied with cricket and spends much of his time, giving unsolicited advice to Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera. President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Environment, has taken upon himself the task of solving the private medical college issue; illicit felling, illegal sand mining other forms of environmental degradation are on the rise. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lectures the media on ethics and promotes devolution while the economy is huffing and puffing and the cost of living is soaring with people gnashing their teeth.

The yahapalana leaders ought to get their priorities right and address the burning problems people are faced with instead of expending their time and energy on other matters that can always wait. They must at least ensure a reliable fuel supply.

There is no way the rejection of a single fuel shipment can plunge the country into chaos if the CPC maintains sufficient stocks and ensures proper distribution. The best antidote to panic buying is to release enough fuel to the market and convince the consumer that the situation is under control. The CPC’s failure to do so shows the government’s claim that it has sufficient fuel stocks is not true. Some refilling stations say they haven’t got any fuel from the CPC since Thursday.

The Petroleum Resources Development Ministry has urged the public to economise on fuel. There is no need for such an exhortation; people have been cutting corners all these years; they even economise on coconuts which cost them as much a litre of petrol each. The mere mention of onion prices is enough to cause tears to well up in their eyes. Needless to say they have reduced fuel consumption to a bare minimum.

We are informed that having rejected the substandard fuel shipment, some government pundits, in a bid to reduce the demand for petrol, until the arrival of the next fuel shipment, floated a rumour of a possible petrol price reduction. This move proved to be counterproductive. Most refilling stations drastically cut down on orders to reduce losses in the event of a price decrease, and their action created a shortage, which triggered panic buying.

A CPC trade unionist, interviewed by a television channel, said the other day, the next shipment of fuel was expected on Nov. 08 and the petrol shortage would last till then. It is hoped that the government worthies who have the same traits as Marie Antoinette won’t ask people to use diesel if petrol is not available!

Thanks to frequent water cuts, people have underground sumps and overhead tanks. Power outages have boosted the sale of generators and solar panels. It looks as if the public had to maintain private fuel dumps as well.

At least now, the government ought to realise the danger of running down the CPC in a bid to allow foreigners to gain control of the petroleum sector. The UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) would have sold hundreds of more refilling stations to the Indian Oil Company as part of its Regaining Sri Lanka programme but for protests from the CPC trade unions. If it had succeeded in its endeavour, the country, by now, would have been given a choice between consuming substandard fuel and facing petroleum shortages. The yahapalana leaders had better give serious thought to rehabilitating some of the oil storage tanks earmarked for sale and maintaining buffer stocks of fuel.

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