A patient and humane approach to tired and frustrated queues

A state of pandemonium prevails in the country, and what started as a mere shortage of essentials has now morphed into a humanitarian and social crisis that affects almost all aspects of the people’s lives and future. No one – not even the Government that keeps making the stale promise that the economic crisis will be over soon – seems to have the answers that the people are desperately seeking.

Endless queues to get food and fuel are the main issue. A wait of a few hours is now a wait of a few days, and the people are frustrated and infuriated by the prevailing hopelessness. Even though the Government came up with several measures – such as importing essential food items to meet the requirement and announcing its fuel distribution plan – such measures have hardly alleviated the hardships that the people are facing. At the same time, to prevent clashes and to control the people in queues, the Government deployed the Police and defence forces, which too does not seem to have achieved anything, given certain recent events at fuel stations. 

The aggression shown by Police and defence forces in dealing with the people in queues has been apparent since the initial stage of the economic crisis. However, two incidents reported last week from fuel stations just made the situation worse. In one incident in Kurunegala, a police officer – who can be assumed to be a high ranking officer based on his uniform – was seen wielding a firearm to control unarmed people who had become frustrated over the fuel scarcity, while in another incident in Athurugiriya, a clash broke out between fuel-seekers and the Police, leading to injuries to members of both the parties.

Emphasising the importance of dealing with this situation in a more sensitive manner, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, in a statement, noted that it is of utmost importance that those enforcing the law act with restraint and caution in dealing with the public, and that it is essential that police officers act with understanding and empathy, and acknowledge the immense suffering of the public. It also warned that public mistrust of the Government and law enforcement will have dire consequences for the country and lead to irreparable harm.

Both the above incidents – in addition to deaths, and also minor clashes at fuel stations which are being reported every day – attracted severe public criticism, which now has turned into an aversion towards the Police and defence forces on duty at fuel stations. Regardless of the circumstances that led to these personnel using force to deal with fuel-seekers, activists are of the opinion that the people in fuel queues should be assisted and controlled humanely, not attacked, manhandled, or arrested.

Dealing with the public is a delicate matter. On the one hand, they are not causing tense situations by choice, and such situations, by every sense of the word, are purely a reaction to the difficulties that they are going through. On the other hand, the answer to their frustration is not more pressure by the Police and the defence forces. Even though the amount of power they have to use to control the people depends on the nature of that situation, the greater responsibility is in fact on such personnel, because they are trained professionals whose duty it is to protect and serve the people. They have been trained to use the minimum force necessary in a lawful manner, handle tense situations with patience and in a disciplined manner, and most importantly, to act in a manner that does not cause harm to any person. The general public – although responsible for their actions – bear a different level of responsibility, because they have not had the same training, and because of the distress that they are in due to the crisis. 

In this context, it is of utmost importance that the authorities take the necessary steps to ensure that police officers and defence Forces personnel on duty at fuel stations, or at any other place where there are queues to obtain essentials, have the ability to not just control groups of people, but also to do it in a humane and calm manner. Use of their powers, especially the use of firearms, should be limited as much as possible, and their priorities should be assisting the people and preventing clashes rather than responding to clashes.

The failure to consider these steps as extremely urgent will result in more clashes getting out of hand, more damage to properties and lives, and ultimately, an exacerbation of the crisis.