“We are afraid to fall sick…we won’t have enough money for medical care if we get sick because we have no savings,” Biakkunga, a 43-year-old taxi driver from Aizawl, told EastMojo.
Biakkunga, like many other taxi drivers and public transport vehicle drivers in Mizoram, has been hit by tragedies in the past few years. First, it was the pandemic, then came the Mizoram-Assam border clashes and now the Assam floods.
The common link in all these incidents? Fuel shortage. It does not help, of course, that Mizoram is the only state in the country without an oil depot.
Biakkunga, 43, has been a taxi driver for over ten years, before which he worked odd jobs. With great difficulty, he accessed a BPL loan to buy a second-hand car for the taxi he currently services. “We are paying loans, but during pandemic, we could not repay our monthly loan. To tell the truth, I did not earn enough to buy food, and also pay our loan. But our lenders understood our predicament and extended our loan tenure. Since it is our main source of livelihood, all these events were a calamity to my family. We do not save anything. We just work, and we cannot save, our children are going to school, and we have many needs. The impact we have felt is strong. The pandemic is beyond our saying, but in regards to petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) we condemn the government for its negligence. The government just does not care about POL,” he said.
At a time when Assam floods have blocked Mizoram’s lifeline—National Highway 306—Biakkunga said there are times they have to stay up through the night. “Sometimes, we wake up at 2:30 am to start lining up for petrol. Today, some of my friends left at 2:30 am and got petrol at around 10 am. There are days when we spend the whole day waiting for petrol. The government spent over Rs 10 lakh on posters during the pandemic. Instead of that, they could have had tankers go for ten trips to stock petrol and fuel. If they did that, we wouldn’t face the problems we are facing now. People just looked at those posters, and no one followed them, but Rs 10 lakh was wasted for it.”
There are other issues too, during a fuel shortage. One of these is the black market sale. Hundreds of illegal fuel vendors line up every day on street corners in Mizoram’s capital city. This continues in public view and without hindrance despite the government’s orders against such activities.
“On Saturday, we could not find petrol, but there was a lot of POL sold in the black market by illegal vendors. It hurt me. People like us, making a living by driving taxis, are hardly able to find fuel but illegal vendors have sufficient supply for sales. The Aizawl DC gave an order rationing the purchase of petrol and diesel. It also issued an order prohibiting illegal POL sales. But what I don’t understand is, they gave an order: so why are they not taking action?” questioned Biakkunga.
‘Government needs to get its priorities right’
Biakkunga believes the government does not give any importance to the POL crisis. “If there is any problem in Silchar and one or two tankers are delayed, it becomes a problem for the whole of Mizoram. I find this very shameful. In Aizawl and other districts, the majority of livelihoods are affected when there is an oil shortage,” he said.
“At the same time, for taxi drivers, there are those who go on rounds and some who are on the stand. In Aizawl, if 1000 taxis were going on rounds around the city, there are around 3,000 taxis on the stand. The time we have to spend in queues to get petrol results in big losses for us. I own my taxi, so my situation is a little better, especially for those driving other people’s taxis they have to submit around Rs 600-700 every day and calculate the time they have for service and the time they have to waste while lining up for petrol, they hardly get any profit.”
When there is a fuel shortage in the state, petrol pumps with limited stock often have a small blackboard sign up with the words “Coupon only.” Coupons for fuel access are given to government workers.
“Coupons are given only to government workers, we don’t get any. Unless we have some friends or good relations with some government employees. It’s possible to have coupons only if you have lucky contacts,” said Biakkunga.
While the coupon option is available for the government workers, for the public at large, the supply department has come up with a permit system where citizens can apply for permits online to get petrol or diesel after stating their purpose.
“My requests for a permit received no response. I have no hope in this system, it doesn’t seem like I will ever get approved. I am not sure if our appeals are even recorded or read. It’s the labourers that suffer. The government workers are well taken care of. The gap between government workers and non-government workers is too wide,” said Lalremkima,* an Aizawl resident.
“While issues going on in neighbouring states may affect our fuel stock, our work hours remain the same, and we still have to use our two-wheelers and four-wheeler transportation every day. Every time the government issues orders limiting petrol, government employees are given coupons so they can acquire their stock, but what about the rest of us,” he questioned.
‘People must learn to not panic’
When asked if the absence of an oil depot could be the major reason why Mizoram often faces a fuel shortage crisis, V Laldinsanga, Joint Director (Administration), Supply Department told EastMojo: “Yes we do not have an oil depot. We used to have one in Vairengte, but it is not functioning anymore, now we are taking initiatives to set up depots in Sihhmui and Bairabi. But we are still not sure if the land will be fit for a rail-fed oil depot. We identified the land, but the railways and IOC will have to check if it is suitable and if it will be possible to set up a railway siding. It’s hard to say how much longer it will take.”
“The IOC oil depot in Vairengte has not been functioning since 2014, they are using it only for transit challan. Once the railway line is constructed, we will be able to have a siding and set up an oil depot. The department is looking into it, and our ministers are taking steady initiatives,” he said.
Laldinsanga believes that it is not the need for an oil depot that creates a shortage, rather, the panic-buying mode of the public, “If we had it (oil depot), it would decrease our struggle but it is not the main reason. The public panic easily. Even now, we have included a permit system because if there is any alert, people start panicking and start queueing at the petrol pumps. They stock petrol in their homes, so there is less stock in the pump. We introduced the permit system, so that there will be equal distribution. While it is due to damaged roads and transportation problems, it could also be because we react in panic mode. It could be that we are bringing the shortage upon ourselves.”
The culture of panic buying of petrol and diesel has become a common sight in Aizawl. Cars and two-wheelers form long queues blocking the road up to 500 meters or sometimes more. Every time there is a landslide in Meghalaya or a flood in Assam, or any disputes arise between Mizoram and its neighbouring states, there is one question in people’s minds, how long will the fuel stock last. Soon enough, the government releases an order rationing petrol and diesel sales. This creates an even greater degree of panic.
While government officials suggest that the panic mode leads to a shortage, a petrol pump owner who wished to remain anonymous believes the public has no choice but to panic, “They say the public panics easily but we have no choice but to panic,” he said.
He believes the main reason why Mizoram often faces the problems of fuel shortage as compared to other states is the lack of an oil depot. “From what I heard, the government is looking into setting up an oil depot now, but even this initiative was taken from the IOC’s side and not the state government,” the pump owner added.
Mizoram Merchant Association (MMA), an umbrella body of 23 trader associations recently released a statement requesting the government to refrain from frequently issuing orders controlling the sale of POL, saying it creates panic among the people. “We believe the petrol stocks quickly run out because of the government order limiting sales and the black market fuel hawkers,” PC Laldinthara, president, MMA, told EastMojo.
He also spoke of the necessity to create multiple points of entry, “I think everyone in the state is hoping for developments in this area, that there should be multiple points of entry to the state. When there were border clashes between Mizoram and Assam, we looked to make Tripura an additional entry point but as soon as the situation subsided everyone preferred Silchar again due to the better road conditions and shorter route,” Laldinthara added.
In early June, the state supply minister K Lalrinliana said work for the construction of an oil depot is expected to start in three months. Addressing a political session, he said, “We are the only state in the country with no oil depot. We have no storage facility except those in filling stations, which can stock fuel that can last for only five days.”
On June 30, as the state celebrated 36 years since the historic signing of the Peace Accord, which ushered in an era of peace after tumultuous years of insurgency and unrest, opposition youths pointed out how the state, which is 35 years old, still could not have a functioning oil depot.
In a statement, the ZPM youth wrote, “The oil depot in Vairengte was constructed under the People Conference party rule through an Emergency Crash Scheme. It was not utilized after the PC party’s reign ended and this shows the culture of the MNF and Congress parties wherein they refuse to utilize initiatives taken by other parties even if it is for the public good.
“We have celebrated ‘Remna Ni’ for over thirty years, but till today, every time there is a border clash, every time there is a flood or other crisis in neighbouring states, we face a fuel crisis within the state. It’s high time that we move forward. We hope the government’s promise to construct an oil depot will soon be made a reality and not disappear into thin air,” the statement added.
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