Scarcity of Supplies Feeds Sporadic Violence as People Scramble for Fuel, Essentials; Few Flee Nation

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Sri Lanka is battling a foreign exchange crisis that forced a currency devaluation and hit payments for essential imports such as food, medicine and fuel, prompting it to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. The Indian Ocean nation announced that the overall rate of inflation for February 2022 stood at 17.5 per cent, the highest since 2015.

The immediate ripple effect of inflation was witnessed as Sri Lanka posted soldiers at hundreds of state-run gas stations on Tuesday to help distribute fuel after a sudden rise in prices of key commodities and accompanying shortages forced tens of thousands of people to queue for hours.

The National Consumer Price Index (NCPI) has weights based on consumer spending in the 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey and reflects new methods consistent with the best international practices, reports Xinhua news agency.

The year-on-year inflation of the food category increased to 24.7 per cent in February 2022 from 24.4 per cent in January 2022, and that of the non-food group rose to 11 per cent in February 2022 from 10.2 per cent in the previous month.

Inflation calculated for January 2022 was 16.8 per cent.

The higher inflation for the month of February 2022 was mainly due to the higher price levels in both food and non-food categories.

‘Too Much Hardship and Suffering’

“The government has to provide solutions,” Seetha Gunasekera, 36, who lives with her husband and two children in Colombo, the capital, told Reuters.

“There is too much hardship and suffering,” added Gunasekera, who said she was spending more time in fuel queues than doing anything else.

“Prices of everything have increased and we are barely able to manage with what we earn daily.”

The decision to deploy troops near petrol pumps and kerosene supply points came after three elderly people dropped dead during their wait in long queues, officials said.

It was a response to complaints of stockpiling and inefficient distribution, said government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana.

“The military has been deployed to help the public, not to curtail their human rights,” he added.

Two Soldiers at Each Pump

Military spokesman Nilantha Premaratne told Reuters at least two army personnel would be stationed at every fuel pump to help organise fuel distribution, but the soldiers would not be involved in crowd control.

Tension over the scarcity of supplies has fed sporadic violence among those scrambling to buy fuel and other essential items.

Police said a man was stabbed to death on Monday in an argument with the driver of a three-wheeled vehicle, while last week three elderly men died queueing for fuel in sweltering heat.

The rapid drain of Sri Lanka’s dollars has left it struggling to pay for critical imports as currency reserves have slumped 70% in the last two years to $2.31 billion.

But Sri Lanka has to repay about $4 billion in debt in the rest of this year, including a $1-billion international sovereign bond that matures in July.

Ahead of IMF talks in Washington in April, the government said it would hire a global law firm to provide technical assistance on debt restructuring to fight the crisis.

Two Men Die Waiting in Queue for Fuel

Sri Lankan police said on Sunday two men collapsed and died while waiting in separate queues to secure fuel amid sky-rocketing prices leading to record inflation.

The men, in their seventies, died while they were waiting for petrol and kerosene oil in two different parts of the country, said police spokesman Nalin Thalduwa in commercial capital Colombo.

For weeks people have been queuing up at pumps, often for hours, and the country has been under rolling power cuts.

“One was a 70-year-old three-wheeler driver who was a diabetic and heart patient while the second was a 72-year-old, both had been waiting in line for about four hours for fuel oil,” Thalduwa said.

On Sunday Sri Lanka suspended operations at its only fuel refinery after crude oil stocks ran out, said Ashoka Ranwala the president of the Petroleum General Employees’ Union.

The energy ministry could not be immediately reached for a comment.

Use of kerosene oil has increased after low-income families began shifting away from cooking gas due to price increases. On Sunday Laugfs Gas, the country’s second largest supplier raised prices by 1,359 rupees ($4.94) for a 12.5 kg cylinder, the company said in a statement.

Sri Lanka has been struggling to find dollars to pay for increasingly expensive fuel shipments since January, with its foreign currency reserves dipping to $2.31 billion in February.

In February Sri Lanka’s inflation hit 15.1%, among the highest in Asia, with food inflation soaring to 25.7%, latest government data showed.

Earlier this month Sri Lanka’s central bank floated the rupee causing the currency to plummet by more than 30% to trade at about 275 rupees per U.S. dollar.

Milk powder prices increased by 250 rupees ($0.90) for a 400g pack on Saturday, prompting restaurant owners to raise the cost of a cup of milk tea to 100 rupees.

Six Sri Lankan refugees saved by Indian Coast Guard

The Indian Coast Guard on Tuesday saved six refugees from Sri Lanka who had fled the island nation following the acute financial crisis there. The six refugees, all Sri Lankan nationals including three children, were stranded on the fourth island off the coast of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

The refugees, according to sources in the Coast Guard, Chennai Unit, said that they were finding it difficult to find food and other essentials in Sri Lanka and had hence escaped to India.

The refugees include a man, his wife, and a four-month-old son, and a woman and her two children aged six and twelve years.

They said that they were dropped on the fourth island off Arichalmunnai by a boatman and they said that they had paid around Rs 50,000 to the boatman for the journey. The fourth island off Arichalmunnai is under the control of the Indian Coast Guard.

(With inputs from agencies)

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