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Fuel chaos

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 10 November 2017 00:00

As fresh fuel stocks reach Sri Lanka’s sun-dappled shores and snaking fuel lines shorten, the time has come to have a candid and transparent look at why the crisis happened and why it was allowed to get so out of hand. 

Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga and his brother Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) Chairman Dammika Ranatunga have been at the centre of the controversy, which has plunged public approval of the Government to a new low. Holding a belated press conference on Monday, three days after the shortage began, Minister Ranatunga told reporters that the crisis was caused by a shipment of fuel not meeting standards and hinted that he was under pressure to accept the substandard consignment. It was also revealed during the press conference that a second shipment, which was supposed to have reached Colombo on 2 November, had been delayed and none of the officials were aware of the reason. 

When unpacking these statements, several questions spring to the surface. Given that the first fuel shipment arrived on 16 October and testing found that it was substandard, why did officials neglect to take immediate action? At the very least they should have checked that the second shipment was on time to avert shortages. The substandard shipment was finally rejected end October but officials had about two weeks to find alternatives, make new purchases and manage the crisis. This was not done. 

Fuel is bought with public money and the fact that officials cannot account for the delay in the second shipment is damning. They also compounded the situation by blaming Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), which has rejected claims pointing out that they only account for 15% of market share and therefore cannot be held responsible for the shortfall. However, CPC unions have questioned as to why IOC was given the tender to supply fuel to the CPC, creating a clear conflict of interest and reducing competition in the industry. 

The Minister also blamed text messages for triggering panic buying but even days after long lines formed at the fuel stations, neither the Minister, CPC Chairman nor other officials stepped forward to communicate the situation clearly to the public. This void of information simply created panic because Sri Lankans are no strangers to fuel-related catastrophes and fearing the worst they moved to stock up on fuel. Communication during a crisis is critical and that is not limited to natural disasters. Despite being public funded, neither the Ministry nor CPC have a competent public relations team and the Minister and the CPC Chairman are rarely accessible, even by the media. This situation needs to change immediately and officials need to understand that in order to get ahead of a crisis they need to get their messaging right.

Minister Ranatunga this week also asked Cabinet to appoint a committee to investigate the shortage but as a responsible officeholder he should take the initiative to launch an independent investigation and reveal its findings to the public. It should not be up to the President and Prime Minister to appoint committees, which ideally should be the task of the subject minister. After every crisis governments appoint committees that eventually come to nothing and if the “Yahapalanaya” administration is serious about keeping its credentials, then it should walk the talk and hold relevant officials accountable.  

The more important task is to ensure that ordering, testing, accepting and distribution of fuel consignments have to be done competently and crisis management for each step has to be set in place. Then, in case of an emergency, it must be clearly and competently communicated to the public. This would be a good place to start.

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