Thousands line up for petrol and gas in Sri Lanka amid food shortage warnings

COLOMBO, May 20 (Reuters) – Thousands of people lined up for cooking gas and petrol in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital on Friday and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned of a food shortage as the island nation is battling a devastating economic crisis.

Lines have formed in many parts of Colombo, a city of around 900,000, as residents try to stock up on fuel, which is mostly imported and extremely scarce as the government has run out of foreign currency.

“Only about 200 bottles were delivered, when there were about 500 people,” said Mohammad Shazly, a part-time driver who is queuing for the third day in hopes of getting cooking gas for his family of five. Hundreds more lined up, with empty bottles by their side.

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“Without gas, without kerosene, we can’t do anything,” Shazly said. “Last option what? Without food, we will die. It will happen one hundred percent.”

Tourism-dependent Sri Lanka, where India and China are jostling for influence, faces severe shortages of foreign currency, fuel and medicine, and economic activity has slowed.

Public transport has run out and traffic is light as most people are staying home due to the scarcity of petrol.

Wickremesinghe, also warning of a food crisis, pledged to buy enough fertilizer for the next planting season to boost productivity and meet the food demand of its 22 million people.

A decision in April last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilizers drastically reduced crop yields and although the government reversed the ban, no substantial imports have yet taken place.

“While there may not be time to get fertilizer for this Yala season (May-August), steps are being taken to ensure adequate stocks for the Maha season (September-March),” the prime minister said in a late night Twitter post. Thusday.

“I sincerely urge everyone to accept the seriousness of the…situation.”

Japan, which has long-standing economic ties with the island, said it would provide a $3 million emergency grant for medicine and food, its foreign ministry said.

When a truck arrived at a cooking gas distribution center with fresh supplies, soldiers armed with automatic rifles guarded the vehicle as people in the queue cheered.

State-owned Litro Gas hopes to start distributing 80,000 bottles a day by Saturday but is scrambling to fill an estimated shortage of 3.5 million bottles in the market, President Vijitha Herath told Reuters.

The government has also launched a tender for the purchase of $120 million in cooking gas under a larger $1 billion line of credit from India.

However, prices have jumped, for cooking gas as well as for food and other necessities.

The price of a 12.5kg cooking gas cylinder soared to nearly 5,000 rupees ($14) from 2,675 rupees in April.

“MIGHT NOT BE EVEN HERE”

“There’s no point talking about how hard life is,” said APD Sumanavathi, a 60-year-old woman selling fruits and vegetables at Pettah Market in Colombo. “I can’t predict how things will be in two months, at this rate we might not even be there.”

Inflation could reach a staggering 40% over the next two months, but it was largely driven by supply-side pressures and central bank and government measures were already dampening inflation on the supply side. demand, the bank said.

Inflation hit 29.8% in April as food prices rose 46.6% year-on-year.

As anger against the government spreads, police fired tear gas and water cannons to repel hundreds of student protesters in Colombo on Thursday. The demonstrators demand the ousting of the president as well as the prime minister.

The economic crisis was born out of the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting tourism, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the government of President Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who resigned from his post as Prime Minister last week.

Critics accuse Wickremesinghe, appointed Prime Minister in his place, of being a servant of the brothers, an accusation he denies.

On Friday, nine new members were appointed to the cabinet, including to the critical health, trade and tourism ministries. But no one has been named to head the finance ministry and lead negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. The portfolio is likely to be retained by Wickremesinghe.

An IMF spokesperson said it was monitoring developments very closely and that a virtual mission to Sri Lanka was due to conclude technical talks on a possible lending program on May 24. read more

The economic powers of the Group of Seven back efforts to relieve Sri Lanka’s debt, the group’s finance chiefs said on Thursday in a draft statement from a meeting in Germany after Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt. sovereign. Read more

Central bank chief P. Nandalal Weerasinghe said advisers to undertake the debt restructuring were almost finalized and he would submit a proposal to the cabinet soon.

“We are in preventive default,” he said. “Our position is very clear, until there is debt restructuring, we cannot repay.”

($1 = 355.0000 Sri Lankan rupees)

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Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe and Devjyot Ghoshal, Additional reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan in NEW DELHI and Kantaro Komiya in TOKYO; Written by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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