Photo courtesy of Hindustan Times
Recently one of my friends updated his Facebook status. “Watching breaking news from Temple Trees,” it read, along with a selfie of him and more people watching the news on TV. “They don’t have power cuts there.” This was at the official residence of the prime minister and he was part of the thousands-strong force of people’s power who protested on July 9 to bring an end to the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime.
The July 9 protests – a culmination of years of frustration – were of a scale unseen in Sri Lanka’s history. Our country had seen continuous protests for months and we finally accomplished a change in the course of the nation. However, other matters will take longer to improve.
It’s 3 pm. My two bedroom apartment has six people crammed into the tiny space, squinting at their laptop screens. Not all of us live here; the majority are a steady flow of daytime visitors. They are here because I happen to live in one of the few areas in central Colombo exempt from power cuts and, consequently, network lags too. This is because my house is located near a hospital and a politician’s house. Life in these neighbourhoods is quite different from what the majority of the population is facing.
My home is now an unofficial hub. University assignments, zoom meetings, interviews and freelance work are done under this roof. Occasionally people stop by with bags of ingredients so they can cook since their homes being unable to procure gas and my lack of power cuts fare well for the induction cooker.
By sheer luck we have a better daily life than most who have to plan their day around power cuts and cook in their rice cookers. But life is still difficult as we work day and night on extra projects to bring in more cash or try to focus on studies as the country falls around us.
The dwindling foreign exchange reserves, which led to Sri Lanka’s biggest economic crisis since its independence in 1948, have impacted imports including the crude oil and fuel necessary to power the national grid. Power cuts shot up to 13 hours a day and have severely affected everyone in the past months.
As people’s patience waned, the government decided to reduce the duration of the power cuts to two to three hours per day. On the flip side, with the limited oil left, there is less fuel to provide for vehicles. The situation peaked at the end of June when state-enforced work from home policies and restrictions on distributing fuel brought the country to a halt. But Sri Lankans have adapted to fit their lives around queues the majority now live in.
Decades of corrupt governance and nepotism, along with hits to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, resulted in nationwide protests and Sri Lanka defaulting on debt for the first time since 1948. Three months and more than 100 days of continuous protests later, people watched the new president being sworn in with his promises to bring the country out of the crisis. However, there isn’t a quick fix for the everyday problems of people; there’s a long road ahead.
A few months ago it was a common sight to see long queues of vehicles by the side of nearly every road. Certain roads had up to three; one for petrol, one for diesel and one for the abundance of three-wheelers and motorcycles. In the last few months these queues have been where most people’s lives happen.
Fuel queue dates were a running joke among the community; a nod to the sad reality that people had no free time to spend outside the queues. My friends charged their laptops and headed to the queues. Depending on the time, they used to watch a movie with their partner or get work done. Before fuel distribution was halted, my flatmate left the house at 4 am to head to work, or rather, the fuel queue next to her office.
School children finished school and headed directly to the queues to join their families. They opted to study from inside their vehicles rather than in their homes, which probably had no power anyway. This was every other day since most of the time, holidays hampered the little education they could get.
Food became a common sight in the queues, with volunteer groups distributing food and drinks as often as possible to those suffering in line. In outstation queues, where there was more room on the roadside, we heard stories of makeshift kitchens being set up outdoors. Large pots, firewood and any vegetables anyone could pitch in fed people in the queue, most of whom could not return to their homes at night because they lived too far away. In Colombo, Uber Eats riders delivered buns and short eats to queues; people socialised over cups of tea from volunteers and little snacks from whoever could afford to bring any.
Women faced the issue of going to the bathroom while in queues, with a trip ranging between four hours to 48 in urban areas and up to a week or 10 days in rural areas. While some had family members rotate shifts or other vehicle owners watch their vehicle while searching for a washroom, others had to resort to extremes such as ice cream boxes.
The health sector launched strikes because they couldn’t get to hospitals; the government didn’t prioritise supplying fuel despite it being an essential sector. Many small businesses suffered from power cuts and a lack of diesel to operate their generators. The railways had to halt operations because workers couldn’t make it to the train stations.
Deaths due to waiting in queues for fuel and gas hit the double digits. Despite everyone doing their best to look out for each other, days upon days of baking in the unforgiving sun took its toll, and until the fuel was distributed, they had nowhere else to go or the means of going anywhere.
Those who were lucky enough to stay in exempted zones or still had gas or fuel remaining were in a better position than most but no matter how much we wish to help, we cannot conjure energy or gas for the masses.
The only reason for any change in the situation now was the introduction of the QR pass system, which has worked to effectively streamline the system so that everyone got their allocated amount within a couple of hours.
Even now, with the QR system implemented and the situation having largely improved with reducing gas prices and dwindling power cuts, citizens are still used to queues. For a long time, they had nowhere else to live.