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No kerosene, no food, Sri Lanka's fishermen say

Image: Reuters Berita 24 English - As the sun rose over Sri Lanka one morning in late August, about a dozen fishermen were setting up their...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English - As the sun rose over Sri Lanka one morning in late August, about a dozen fishermen were setting up their nets on a beach in Mannar, a small island just off the country's northwestern coast. This was the start of their day's work.

But many other fishermen in the area can't go to sea at all because of the country's terrible economic crisis, which is the worst since it became independent in 1948.

Fuel shortages and out-of-control inflation make it hard for them to get the kerosene oil they need to power the boats that are their main source of income.

"Everything is hard right now. There's no kerosene and no food at home," said Soosaipillai Nicholas, 73, who goes by the nickname Sornam.

"We only have work if we go to the sea. If we don't go to the sea, we don't have any work. We're starving, "He said this while speaking Tamil.

Sornam was already struggling to find food before the economic crisis hit. Now that he is older, he can't go out to sea, but he has come to Thalvapadu beach to help the fishermen who do get out of the harbour collect and sort their catch.

But because there isn't enough kerosene, people who usually go out in their own boats are now doing the same work. This means that where there used to be 15 people per boat, there are now 40.

Sornam's income has gone down since profits are shared. He says he sometimes gets 250 Sri Lankan rupees (about 70 U.S. cents) a day, which is about half of what he used to get when times were better.

That doesn't go very far when inflation is about 65% year over year and food prices are up almost 94%.

For months, there was no kerosene at all in Mannar because the country ran out of foreign currency and couldn't import crude for its refineries. When supplies started coming back just a few weeks ago, the price of kerosene was almost four times as high because Sri Lanka had started taking away fuel subsidies.

"We don't need luxury goods like petrol and diesel. For our essential work, all we need is kerosene, "The owner of the boat Sornam had come to help with, Raja Cruz, said.

He said that some families in the area had gone to India, which is less than 30 km (20 miles) from the northernmost point of Mannar island, in hopes of a better life.

Before, kerosene was sold at a subsidised rate of 87 rupees per litre, which is about 92 U.S. cents per gallon. Now, the government rate is 340 rupees per litre, which is about $3.62 per gallon. Cruz said that it sells for 1,800 ruppes per litre on the black market.

Sri Lanka's minister of power and energy, Kanchana Wijesekera, said in a tweet last month that the price of kerosene had to be changed for a long time. "Prices are now the same as costs, so the government wants to give low-income families, fisheries, and plantations that use kerosene a direct cash subsidy."

Cruz said that families in Mannar haven't been given any help yet.


Cruz also said that fishermen thought that the humming sound that the wind turbines on Thalvapadu beach made had scared fish away from the shore. Because there wasn't enough kerosene, the fishermen couldn't go very far out to sea, so they had to make do with fewer fish.

A local Fisheries Department worker named Sarath Chandranayaka said that the government knew about the claims and was gathering information, but nothing had been proven yet.

Chandranayaka also said that 60 percent of Mannar's needs were now being met because kerosene supplies had been restored. However, he said that there could be a fuel shortage later in the year during high fishing season, when demand for fuel will be higher.

Cruz said that many fishermen were doing "small-scale work" to make a living, like catching crabs near the shore.

Cruz said, "If you don't have kerosene, you can't go into the sea or far." "It costs 1,800 rupees if you try to buy it from a private seller. Think about how much more that is than 87 rupees: 1,800 rupees. What is the right way to live?"

Even though the recent distribution of kerosene has helped a little, Cruz says that the price increase has made it hard for fishermen to make decisions. He also says that high inflation makes it hard for people to buy basic necessities and food.

As the boats came back to shore just before sunset, more than one was rowed back to shore to save fuel.

Peter Jayem Alan said that he used to fish with other people on kerosene-powered boats, but now he rows to make a living.

Alan said, "Before, we had kerosene, so going out wasn't a problem." "Now, it's hard to get kerosene, so we have to work hard and row instead."

A lot of fishermen who don't have their own boats work with other fishermen and get a share of the daily profit. Ebert Rajeevan, who is 35 years old, works in this way and sometimes does other manual work on land to make money.

"At the moment, as long as we have kerosene, we have to work every day. If there's no kerosene, I had to go with these people today, but I'll have to ask someone else tomorrow "Rajeevan said.

He said that sometimes the boats had already taken on all the people they could hold. "So, we'll have to stay home. We have to stay home and do whatever work for a daily wage we can find."

($1 = 355.0000 Sri Lankan rupees)

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