Sri Lanka: Several die in fuel queues that stretch for over 6km

Residents wait days for petrol, form mini-communities in lines

By Qadijah Irshad

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Published: Sat 30 Jul 2022, 1:46 PM

Last updated: Sat 30 Jul 2022, 2:11 PM

Millions of men, women and children continue to wait patiently, as the miles-long fuel queues in Sri Lanka claimed another life Friday night.

The 71-year-old man from Pusellawa, some 140 kilometres from the capital Colombo, died of a heart attack on Friday night after standing in queue for more than two days.

The death does not come as a shock to anyone anymore.

In the past three months alone, 17 men between the ages of 29 to 84 have died waiting for fuel. Most were old and died of a heart attack. Some snapped and got into fights after days of patience. Recently, a man who jumped the line to get fuel to take his wife, who was in labour, to the hospital, was killed when frustrated people waiting days turned on him.

“My wife is constantly afraid I might not come back home,” said Ramesh Kaluthunga, a 76-year-old retired government servant with diabetes and a heart condition. “A week ago, I had to wait in the queue for five days. It’s not easy for an old man like me.”

This week, Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said fuel distribution would be restricted for 12 months because of a severe shortage of foreign exchange.

The news hit home hard.

“How can we survive 12 more months of this?” asked Kamini Abeysekera, a single mother of a 12-year-old. She already holds two jobs as an Uber driver and part-time carer for elderly women.

“My husband is dead, I need to feed and send my child to school, and I need petrol for my work, which mostly involves driving old people around. Now, I just spend days in queues, and the petrol I get is not enough even for two days.”

The government began a trial fuel rationing system of a weekly fuel allocation per vehicle this week. The system will go national on Sunday. But users say it is not enough, leading to black market sales.

“There’s no choice. We need to live. First, it was Covid and now no petrol. We can’t let out children starve, so the trishaw drivers have resorted to this,” a black-market dealer told The Telegraph.

A litre of petrol that costs Dh5.59 is sold at almost Dh31.30 in the black, fetching trishaw drivers willing to spend time in queues around Dh7.55 profit per day.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. There are people who can’t afford to stay in queues, and are willing to pay us. We are doing them a service.”

Queues wind down main roads and private lanes up to four miles (over 6km) with men, women and children pushing their vehicles forward in the sweltering heat. Little communities forming in fuel queues have become a common sight in the cash-strapped island nation facing the worst economic crisis in history.

Schools that reopened after a month are reporting less than 60 per cent attendance in the cities.

“Schools reopening has just added more stress in our home,” said Jeya Pillai, a housewife. “My husband doesn’t even have diesel to go to work, and now the children want to go to school, but we can’t send them, because we can’t afford trishaw fares or school van services now.”

The drivers of three-wheeled trishaws, the commonest mode of transport on the island, have hiked their fares by over 600 per cent. A journey that cost less than a sterling pound, now costs GBP 7.

“The fares go up every day. We can’t plan anymore,” said Rizwana Cader, a teacher who is six months pregnant. She has spent more than 75 per cent of her earnings on trishaw rides this month.

“I can’t take the bus because it is so overcrowded. A forty-seater is carrying almost a hundred people now. I can’t risk it,” she said.

Many others are spending most of their earnings on travel.

“I spend half my salary travelling to work in trishaws now because I can’t work from home due to the constant power cuts,” said Niranjan Perumal, an IT specialist who repatriated to Sri Lanka recently from the UK.

“The buses are overcrowded and there’s no train service from where I live. I’m looking to migrate back.”

Doctors said the health sector is on the verge of collapse due to the fuel crisis. As Covid and dengue wards reopen in hospitals, doctors and minor staff are unable to report to work.

“The lack of fuel is our biggest problem now,” said Dr Kumara Wickremesinghe, the deputy director of the state-run National Hospital. “More patients are coming in now, and doctors and other staff don’t have fuel to travel, so they are taking longer shifts. We are understaffed and doctors are exhausted.”


Although there is no fuel quota for the healthcare sector, the government has provided consultant specialists letters of priority. But doctors said the queues “don’t work that way.”

“People get violent when they learn we don’t have to wait in line. What they don’t understand is that when a doctor stays in a queue for three days, we lose patients,” said a cardiologist, who wished to remain anonymous.

“I have already lost a patient staying in a petrol queue. It’s really time the government cleaned up this mess.”

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