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 Indian Ocean nation 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 government has to provide solutions,” said Seetha Gunasekera, 36, who lives with her husband and two children in Colombo, the capital.
“There is too much hardship and suffering,” she said, adding 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 died during their wait in long lines, officials said.
It was a response to complaints of stockpiling and inefficient distribution, government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said.
“The military has been deployed to help the public, not to curtail their human rights,” he added.
Military spokesman Nilantha Premaratne told Reuters at least two army personnel would be stationed at every fuel pump to help organize 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 while in line 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 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.
SOURCE: Reuters, Uditha Jayasinghe