Raving tentacles of writhing hopelessness, nourished by seething curses and boiling rage, undulating as they do, from the tributaries of languid bylanes, through to the torrents of main thoroughfares, and across the estuaries of filling stations and distributing centres, only to disgorge into the rapacious maw of dispenser pumps and cylinders, this is what queues in Sri Lanka, be they for fuel or gas, are.
Like the American art rock band, The Velvet Underground’s songwriter Lou Reed’s junkie in ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, who is feeling “sick and dirty, more dead than alive”, waiting for that fix which is “never early” but “always late”, Sri Lankans too are learning more than they care to, that one has “always gotta wait”. A lot, it seems. “That…that was how I spent the day, just waiting, waiting, waiting…but waiting like a man running amok, senselessly, like an animal, with that headlong, direct persistence.” That was a day in the life of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s obsessive protagonist in ‘Amok’, and it uncannily mirrors that of Sri Lankan citizens.
What is ‘essential’ about this devoted and long wait? There is another answer besides the obvious. Is it that we, the people, as British poet Philip Larkin further observes in ‘Next, Please’, being “always too eager for the future” have picked up the “bad habits of expectancy” of “something always approaching, every day”, something slow, wasteful, “refusing to make haste”, but a “sparkling armada of promises” drawing near, yet leaving us holding the “wretched stalks of disappointment”, as it “no sooner present than it turns to (the) past” or have we found, as American novelist Chuck Palahniuk notes in ‘Choke’, that “after you find out all the things that can go wrong, your life becomes less about living and more about waiting.”
But if Lankans, weary of waiting and entombed within expectation, are expecting the unguent of “an arrival, an explanation, an apology” as a character in American novelist Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping” would have it, such is- in the backdrop of the Power and Energy Ministry Secretary being unaware last week as to why an eagerly awaited stock of 92 Octane Petrol had been delayed despite a previous assurance by the subject Minister – an exercise in abject ‘manna from heaven’ futility.
Instead, they are, of late, being emotionally goaded like the bull is by the toreros, with a lesson on the semantics of ‘essentiality’ by none other than the peoples’ sworn protectors, the law enforcers, the Sri Lanka Police- that is when the latter is not fending off their counterparts in the Army, both groups manning fuel sheds at present, providing ‘security’ for the stations, upon their being deployed as ‘crowd control’ against the helpless and wretched masses who for their part have only managed one incident of genuine bloodletting (a three-wheeler driver knifing a motorcyclist to death), some minor scuffles amongst each other, and major ones with gun toting, sky shooters in khaki and camo who have also claimed a civilian life (Rambukkana).
In a backdrop of video footage being shared on social media platforms of various Police officers, sometimes the same cop, driving multiple vehicles that clearly do not belong to the Police, bypassing queues to the pump, and elsewhere, whisking off with can after fuel can (supposedly to power generators at Police stations during power cuts, per the Police Media Spokesman), and also not lifting a finger against a Government Parliamentarian’s ‘thug gone wild’ brother for obstructing duties, it was observed by the Police Department’s mouthpiece who also is a Senior Superintendent of Police and an Attorney to boot, that while Police officers, owing to the round the clock nature of their work such as responding to 119 calls, other emergencies and investigations, are not encouraged to queue up, the Police would however probe and take action regarding any public complaints replete with express evidence attesting to instances of alleged nepotism, the exertion of undue influence and thereby the misuse of authority on the part of Police officers to procure and secure fuel for family and friends. Duty calls. “So, we cannot afford to have our officers in queues,” the said Spokesman emphasized.
Meaning is derived in part from context. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘essential’ as something that is completely necessary and extremely important in a particular situation or for a particular activity. By this working definition, it is a given that the Police ‘service’ is of vital essence, but by that same token, so too is the time (for those in queues, this is now measured in days and weeks), and the limited stock quota of fuel (to the degree that it requires the person in the queue to repetitively engage in a Sisyphean rigmarole [it is a rigmarole as one can never really know for certain which shed will receive fuel, how much, when, and of recent times, where the queue even begins]), for the majority of those in queues.
One also need not mention the plight of those parents who alternate between having or not having even a single meal a day so as to stretch out whatever meagre starch that they can scrounge for their children to impress the point that one does not have to be employed in a Government designated ‘essential service’ category in order to provide an essential service, even if it is of private bearing and concerns familial priority.
Therefore, any distinction between essential and non-essential, while serving some purpose, is wholly subjective and ultimately arbitrary.
Moreover, per the Police Ordinance, the Police force which has been established for the “effectual protection of (the) person” (Section 3) obliges officers to use their best endeavours and ability to prevent all crimes, offences, and public nuisances [Section 56(a)] and preserve the peace [Section 56(b)]. Hence, for the Police to behave and conduct themselves in this nuisance causing and peace disrupting manner is not just professionally unbecoming but socio-legally unacceptable. Moreover, proffering duty calls as the excuse for such misdemeanors is entirely sans justification. The Police must work in the public interest.
What then is the solution to ensuring that those in the designated essential services category such as the Police are not hindered in fulfilling their duties and responsibilities due to being inconvenienced in queues whilst also not stepping on the toes of the rest of the public, who while they may not necessarily be from or of a designated essential services category, nonetheless fulfill and serve essential functions as the cogwheels of society, no matter how paltry their work seems to the State.
The health sector, starting last Friday (24), sought and obtained a solution of sorts (of sorts, as it is still very much a method in progress), which is that of a dedicated day to avail of a weekly fuel allowance, from allocated sheds, under security.
It is hereby proposed that the feasibility of expanding this to other ‘essential among essential’ categories, on a ‘first among equals’ work priority basis be urgently looked into, and to also consider the options of having allotted times on a given day, assigning the geographically proximate and smallest station to such (as the larger stations should be dedicated to serve large queues such as where there are motorcycles, three-wheelers, cars, vans, and lorries/trucks, occupying in some cases, half of a main road including the pavement), sending mobile bowsers to essential workplaces to issue into cans, and essentially, also monitoring such mechanisms put in place for the provision of fuel to essential categories for any possible misuse by such hierarchies of essentiality.
Only frayed nerves and tempers are holding barely concealed aggression and violence at bay; hence, the relevant authorities’ comprehending this reality and making haste with such solutions in re essentialities is essential.