A candle in the darkness

As the whole world is on fire over the latest fuel crisis with prices fluctuating around record levels amid fears that they may hit the US$ 200 a barrel mark by year's end, Sri Lanka, like many developing countries, finds itself at the very gates of hell on this burning issue.

Adding fire to the fuel crisis is the blazing row between the government and the Lanka-Indian Oil Company over the prices of diesel.

In a manoeuvre that could be considered as a commercial master stroke, if not a hostile act of manipulation, the LIOC recently increased its diesel to Rs. 130 a litre - Rs. 10 more than the price at Ceylon Petroleum Corporation filling stations. As diesel is still heavily subsidized, almost all vehicles are going to CPC filling stations for diesel and therefore, the CPC or the state - and that means the Sri Lankan people - would have to bear the entire loss on the diesel subsidy.

An angry Petroleum Resources Minister A.H.M. Fowzie warned in parliament on Friday that the government would take over the LIOC filling stations if they did not play fair on the diesel issue. But clashing openly with this giant Indian company and taking over its filling stations might provoke a diplomatic crisis with the Indian government itself at a time when Sri Lanka needs India's active support in finding a lasting solution to Sri Lanka's national question. Thus the best course of action would be to have a dialogue and reach some accommodation with the LIOC on this issue while focusing more attention on effective ways of reducing fuel consumption as most countries are doing now.

Along with a public education programme on the urgent need for fuel conservation, an example is also needed and this must necessarily come or start at the top. Living leadership means leading by example and that is the only way because preaching without practising is dead leadership. So the example needs to be steered at the top with the jumbo cabinet drastically reducing the fuel that the record number of ministers, their families, security personnel, officials and others are busting up for non-essential purposes. If and when that example is set by political and other leaders, then the people could be advised and encouraged on a multitude of ways to reduce fuel consumption.

From time to time, governments have come up with various suggestions to significantly reduce fuel consumption, but little has been done to implement them. For instance, a good place to start would be the school where most good things start. Thousands of vans and private vehicles bring children to school on five days of the week. A diplomat from a rich foreign country once remarked on the scene he witnessed outside a leading school in Colombo. About 500 vans and private vehicles were taking away children from that school. The diplomat remarked that in his rich country, ten buses, run in an effective way, were doing what 500 vehicles were used for in a poor country like Sri Lanka. In this manner, tens of thousands of litres of fuel are saved. More importantly, traffic congestion is eased, thus saving so much more in terms of fuel, time and money. Most importantly, environmental pollution is reduced to a huge extent and this is vitally important for Sri Lanka at a time when medical evidence shows that more than 60 percent of the people in Colombo and the suburbs are suffering from respiratory ailments due to environmental pollution. When the savings on the medical bills and fuel bills are put together with the saving of productive time, the total benefit could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

In many countries, civic-conscious people who are concerned not only about the country's economy but also about the serious repercussions of environmental pollution are now measuring what is called their carbon footprints. They are calculating how much each of them is contributing towards environmental pollution or environmental conservation. For instance, using public transport for visits to distant areas, instead of using private vehicles, would be one important way of saving fuel and reducing environmental pollution. But for this, as for the school bus service, an effective and safe system needs to be worked out and sustained.

Many western and even Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, are getting together to work out a system of pooling their vehicles. For instance, three families in one area come to an arrangement where they use one family car for all on different days, thus saving fuel, easing traffic congestion and in the process also bringing about better relationships when people get together for the common good of all and the country. Instead of cursing the darkness over which we have little or no control, we need to individually and collectively light a candle in this fuel crisis.



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