Government charting path out of crises | Daily News

Government charting path out of crises

Long fuel queues, a common sight these days. Picture by Saliya Rupasinghe
Long fuel queues, a common sight these days. Picture by Saliya Rupasinghe

The government this week embarked on an ambitious plan to alleviate the many challenges faced by the public with a series of measures aimed at reducing the demand of fuel and rationalising its distribution throughout the country while at the same time seeking international assistance in earnest.

A feature of the economic crisis has been the shortage of fuel. Fuel imports have been few and far between due to dwindling foreign reserves. Currently, fuel imports have been negotiated through Credit Lines and are arriving intermittently, as and when these negotiations are concluded.

The demand for fuel far exceeds supply and this has resulted in long queues for fuel in almost every fuel station. This has had the effect of employees both in the State and public sectors having to forego time at work to secure fuel that would enable them to get to and from work regularly.

Due to the long queues, the waiting periods the public are spending in them have also increased sharply in recent weeks and, in some instances, have been over twenty-four hours. As a result, crowds gathered at fuel stations have become restless and unruly at times, leading to several incidents.

Fisticuffs at fuel stations

Two such incidents received wide coverage in the media. One was at Maspotha in the Kurunegala district where Police officers are accused of using excessive force. In another incident at Athurugiriya in the Greater Colombo area, it is alleged that members of the public attacked the fuel station.

Social media also reported that staff in the crucial health sector, being compelled to spend long hours in fuel queues, were being delayed in reporting for work. This was affecting critical services leading to the curtailment of some health services such as conducting clinics and surgeries, reports said.

Following these reports, several steps were taken to prevent such incidents. Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara said private bus operators could obtain fuel from the nearest Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) depot. This service would be available throughout the day, he assured.

Minister Wijesekera said diesel vehicles engaged in the tourism sector, school vans and vehicles engaged in staff transport could also obtain fuel from the nearest SLTB depot. However, he advised the public not to queue up for petrol until June 23, when the next shipment of petrol is due.

Minister Wijesekera, in consultation with Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, has also designated selected fuel stations to provide fuel for health sector staff. Minister Rambukwella instructed heads of health institutions to issue a letter to such staff, to be produced at the filling station to obtain fuel.

In a move to prevent disruptions in sectors that are vital to maintain services, the government also issued special gazette notification, declaring that the supply and distribution of petroleum products and fuel, electricity supply, hospitals and all related services would be essential services.

Economic challenges

In the meantime, a series of events that would help alleviate the current economic challenges were noted this week. In Colombo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe commenced discussions with a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is presently visiting the country.

The government has declared that financial assistance from the IMF will be one of the main strategies to overcome the current crisis. While a plan for restructuring the economy will take months to reach fruition, this is the first step in that process and will provide advice and direction to the government.

Also in Colombo is Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil. Minister O’Neil was due to meet with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris to discuss economic assistance to Sri Lanka as well as combating people smuggling.

This is after several boats of Sri Lankans attempting to migrate illegally to Australia were intercepted by the Sri Lankan Navy. Australia maintains a strict policy of not accepting refugees entering the country illegally and all such persons will be returned to Sri Lanka, its government has said.

Following Minister O’Neil’s visit, which also coincides with the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Australia, the Australian High Commission in Colombo announced a grant of $50 million in development aid to support Sri Lanka meet urgent food and healthcare needs.

“Sri Lanka currently faces its worst economic crisis in seventy years, leading to shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Not only do we want to help the people of Sri Lanka in its time of need, there are also deeper consequences for the region if this crisis continues,” the High Commission said.

Australia will contribute $22 million to the World Food Programme for emergency food assistance to Sri Lanka, $22 million in development assistance to support health services and economic recovery and a further $5 million through the United Nations, a statement from the High Commission said.

In an indication that other governments were also supportive of Sri Lanka, the United States announced funding to address the immediate needs of the people hardest hit by the economic crisis. A sum of $5.75 million will provide monetary assistance, short-term jobs, and agriculture supplies.

“The new assistance that we’re announcing will address some of these complex issues. We are working hard to ensure that these funds directly reach the Sri Lankans who have been most severely affected by this crisis,” United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung explained.

The new funding is through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and builds on last week’s announcement of $6 million in grants through USAID and $120 million in new loans through the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the United States Embassy said.

Meanwhile, political developments also continued despite the government’s attention being focused on resolving economic issues. Among them was a challenge to the nomination of businessman Dhammika Perera to fill the National List vacancy created by the resignation of Basil Rajapaksa.

Four petitioners including the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Journalist Roel Raymond and writer Gamini Viyangoda had filed Fundamental Rights petitions in the Supreme Court challenging Dhammika Perera’s nomination by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

The petitioners stated that Dhammika Perera’s name was not on the list submitted by the SLPP to the Election Commission under Article 99A of the Constitution or in any nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by the SLPP for the General Election held in August 2020.

The petitioners also noted alleged bias and conflicts of interest caused by Perera’s appointment as a Member of Parliament and possibly a Cabinet Minister, due to his ownership of businesses in many sectors including plantations, power generation, banks, finance companies and consumer goods.

Following the challenge Perera had given an undertaking before the Supreme Court that he would not take oaths as a Member of Parliament or a Government Minister until the Supreme Court made an order regarding the Fundamental Rights petitions filed challenging his appointment.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected granting leave to proceed with the five fundamental rights petitions. The petitions were decided on by a bench comprising of Justices Priyantha Jayawardena, Yasantha Kodagoda and Arjuna Obeysekera.

At the time of writing Perera was reported as being likely to be appointed as Minister of Technology and Investment Promotion overseeing institutions such as the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), the Board of Investment and also the Colombo Port City.

21st Amendment

In another decision with political significance from the Supreme Court, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena announced that the Court had determined that provisions in the 21st Amendment proposed by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) were inconsistent with the Constitution.

As such these provisions require a referendum and need to be passed in Parliament with a special majority, the Supreme Court has determined. Effectively, this means that the amendment proposed by the SJB which included abolishing the Executive Presidency, is unlikely to proceed any further.

However, the 21st Amendment proposed by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe received approval by the Cabinet this week. The Amendment will now need to be gazetted, allowing public scrutiny and providing the opportunity for it to be challenged in the Supreme Court.

“We have attempted to draft the new legislation as close to the 19th Amendment as possible,” Minister Rajapakshe told Parliament. “The new legislation comprises clauses which can be approved without a referendum unlike the 21st Amendment which was proposed by the SJB”, he said.

“Some question whether the 21st Amendment will fill stomachs or whether it will resolve the fuel, gas and power crisis. However, it is important. Many donors including the IMF want democracy and the rule of law before they agree to assist us. The 21st Amendment will bring this stability,” he said.

The political and economic crisis in the country is not over yet. Yet, slowly but surely, a path out of the crisis is taking shape, helped by plans of action devised by the government, generous overseas donors and legislative changes at restoring law and order and the public’s faith in the government. 

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