“Will you adopt a 1990 Suwaseriya ambulance and help save lives?” — bold letters screamed in a half-page advertisement in Tuesday’s (March 28) edition of Sri Lanka’s top business daily.

“Due to the current economic situation, the Treasury is unable to fully fund its operations, which may lead to the service being unsustainable in 2023,” the advertisement in the Daily Financial Times read, requesting corporates and individuals to “adopt an ambulance” at LKR 5 million (roughly ₹12.5 lakh) each.

The urgent appeal for finances to keep Sri Lanka’s first pre-hospital emergency ambulance service afloat comes amid the government’s efforts to revive its battered economy from last year’s devastating financial crash. On March 20, the government secured a nearly-$3 billion package from the International Monetary Fund that is to be disbursed over four years.

About the ambulance service

The ‘1990’ ambulance service was first launched first in 2016 with 88 ambulances in Sri Lanka’s Western and Southern Provinces, with an Indian grant of $7.56 million. Within a couple of years, the service expanded island-wide with an additional Indian grant of $15.09 million.

After the first batch of some 700 technicians received training in India, the service has been run entirely by Sri Lanka, as a semi-government, not-for-profit organisation under the Ministry of Health.

Today, with a fleet of 297 ambulances, the service provides a critical response to medical emergencies across all nine provinces of the country. It has responded to over 14 lakh cases to date, including during the pandemic, and attends to over 1,000 emergencies daily, enhancing the medical care provided by Sri Lanka’s acclaimed public health system.

While the service had sought LKR 3.9 billion from the government to continue running this year, the Treasury provided just LKR 2.5 billion, official sources told The Hindu.

Major challenges

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Finance Minister, has instructed the Treasury to release funds for essential public expenditure, but the government appears to be struggling to fund even crucial requirements, going by the recent appeal for a financial lifeline for the popular ambulance service.

The ruling administration also faces sharp criticism for “withholding funds” necessary to conduct the local government elections that now stand postponed.

(The writer is a correspondent with The Hindu)