ODDARA KULAM, SRI LANKA — For eight years, Ponuththurai Paskaran has worked from dusk until dawn, six days a week, operating his auto rickshaw. Now, it sits unused outside his home while he considers his future.
“It’s a completely hopeless situation,” he says while cleaning his vehicle, which would ordinarily transport schoolchildren and commuters between villages and into the city of Vavuniya, in the Northern Province.
Ponuththurai is one of around 300,000 auto rickshaw drivers in Sri Lanka who are cut off from a regular fuel supply. Many have been forced off the road.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, elected by Parliament after protesters forced his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee the country and resign, is working to avert economic ruin and win back the trust of Sri Lankans. But his election as president reignited protests. A post-pandemic decline in tourism and manufacturing as well as a steep decline in foreign remittances — the money Sri Lankans living abroad send home — are all pushing the island to the brink of bankruptcy. The shortage of fuel, due to a lack of funds to purchase it and the war in Ukraine, which has caused a hike in gas prices, has forced schools to close and left many industries, such as transportation, unable to operate.
Just over a third of the population owns cars in Sri Lanka. Others rely on buses or taxis, like the auto rickshaw, to get around. The crisis has left thousands in the transportation industry without the necessary fuel to do their jobs. Many residents are also struggling to get to work, stranding people in emergency situations and bringing daily life to a standstill.
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Thasarathan Sinthuja lives in the Vavuniya district, where most auto rickshaws have stopped working. When Sinthuja’s 2-year-old son developed a fever and needed urgent medical attention, she had no transport options. The incessant horn-honking of her normally bustling area has been replaced by an eerie quiet.
“I carried my child for 2.5 kilometers [1.5 miles], as I could not find any vehicle, even in an emergency,” says Sinthuja, whose son has made a full recovery.
Parents, meanwhile, are frantically trying to find a way to get their children to school, which is back in session after the fuel crisis led the government to close schools for a month in July. In June, the U.K.-based nonprofit Save the Children, which helps young people in crisis, said many parents were having to queue for “up to two days — or over 50 hours” to get fuel, which was preventing them from working and “creating further financial stress.”
Ponuththurai’s first job of the day would normally be taking five children to school at 7:30 a.m. Then he would head to the taxi stand, ready for a constant stream of customers. He used to earn 65,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($180) a month. But when the government-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, which controls 80% of the country’s fuel supply, restricted fuel to essential services, he could no longer get enough fuel to do his job.
Lanka IOC, a smaller, private fuel company, didn’t impose restrictions. But without enough fuel to meet demand, customers faced long lines at the pump. Ponuththurai waited three days and nights at a Lanka IOC gas station 28 kilometers (17 miles) from his home to get just 4 liters of gas (1.06 gallons). His ordeal was enough to dissuade him from any further attempts, forcing his business off the road.
“In my eight years of experience, my income decreased considerably for the first time,” Ponuththurai says. “I can’t even rely on my vehicle to transport my daughter to school — I have to take her on my bicycle.”
THAYALINI INDRAKULARASA, GPJ SRI LANKA
On July 21, the government lifted restrictions and allowed all vehicles to access fuel, with limits depending on the vehicle. Auto rickshaws are allowed to purchase 2,000 rupees’ ($5.50) worth of fuel per week, enough for almost 5 liters (1.3 gallons), a quarter of what Ponuththurai needs to support his family.
Kamalakumari Karunaanithy, senior economics lecturer at the University of Jaffna, says fuel is an essential commodity and its scarcity is affecting the entire island. “The current situation is causing the three-wheeler drivers to lose their jobs; it will seriously affect the food security of their families,” says Karunaanithy, who acknowledges that the fuel crisis will further drag the country’s economy down. “Producers using fuels may have only limited production due to limited fuel availability. So of course, it will have a steady impact on domestic production.”
The Ministry of Power and Energy declined to comment.
Auto rickshaw driver Rasathurai Kugan says the price of a liter (0.26 gallons) of petrol has risen to 450 rupees ($1.23) from 177 rupees (49 cents) in January. He describes the situation as the most severe economic setback he has experienced during the almost two decades he has worked as a taxi driver.
“I now grow a home garden to make money,” says Rasathurai, who adds that the lack of fuel also poses challenges for his new venture, like when he needs to run machinery and transport his produce to sell. “I don’t know what can be done.”
THAYALINI INDRAKULARASA, GPJ SRI LANKA
The Indian Oil Corporation gave Sri Lanka a credit line to purchase fuel, but it wasn’t enough to fulfill the country’s needs, according to the latest report from the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies, released at the end of June. Residents can now access the island’s limited fuel supply only by using a QR-code system that the government introduced on Aug. 1. Those who register their vehicle and receive the code can scan it at the pump to purchase their weekly fuel allowance. Organizers hope the move will reduce crowding at gas stations, but for the 65% of people who don’t have internet access to register their vehicle, it’s just another fuel restriction.
Rasathurai had to pay 150 rupees (42 cents) to a local store owner, who registered his vehicle and printed the QR code for him. It’s a cost many could do without when they’re already struggling to make ends meet.
For Ponuththurai and thousands of others like him, the situation gets more desperate. Inflation continues to rise, obtaining essentials requires standing in line, and thousands still struggle to make a living.
Ponuththurai has also turned to farming. He hopes he can grow enough groundnuts or peanuts to make a profit and support his family. “An income is needed to survive until the situation stabilizes,” he says. “But the future is uncertain.”