Sri Lankans are suffering in a stalled economy

Posted 30 March, 2022

Faced with the worst economic crisis that Sri Lanka has known, the anger of the inhabitants is increasingly palpable, whether in the endless queues at petrol stations or in the candlelight during power cuts.

Severely lacking in foreign currency, the island is unable to import vital goods, leading to severe shortages, ranging from life-saving drugs to cement.

In the long queues that form before dawn outside gas stations, everyone is worried about how they will be able to feed their families with soaring food prices.

"I've been here for five hours," Sagayarani, a Colombo housewife, told AFP, waiting for her share of kerosene to fuel the stoves of the capital's poorest households.

She says she has already seen three people pass out and that she herself should be in hospital for medical treatment, but with her husband and son at work, she has no choice but to die. waiting under the hot morning sun.

"I haven't eaten anything, I'm dizzy and it's very hot, but what can we do? It's a lot of suffering," she explains, refusing to give her surname.

 

Demonstration against power cuts, lack of fuel and other essentials, March 27, 2022 near Colombo, Sri Lanka

Demonstration against power cuts, lack of fuel, and other essentials, on March 27, 2022, near Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP)

 

At the port, trucks cannot transport food and construction materials to other urban centers, nor bring back tea from the plantations located in the highlands region, in the center of the country.

"Mismanagement"

Buses carrying daily workers in the capital are at a standstill, some hospitals have suspended non-emergency operations. Exams have been postponed this month due to a shortage of paper.

The government has acknowledged that the current crisis is the worst since the country's independence in 1948.

 

In recent years, the country, which only emerged from decades of civil war in 2009, has been hit by a series of harrowing events.

Agriculture suffered a disastrous drought in 2016, tourism was wiped out by the Islamist attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, killing at least 279 people, then the Covid-19 pandemic dried up remittances from Sri Lanka. -Lankans living abroad.

Tourism and the diaspora are two vital sources of foreign currency needed to pay for imports and service the country's external debt, which amounts to 51 billion dollars (46 billion euros).

But according to Murtaza Jafferjee, president of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute, government "mismanagement" is a much bigger factor.

Mr Jafferjee points to a chronic public deficit, misguided tax cuts just before the pandemic that deprived the state of revenue, and subsidies on electricity and other public services that disproportionately benefited the Richest Sri Lankans.

Bad policy decisions have compounded the problems. Last year, authorities declared Sri Lanka would become the first nation in the world to practice all-organic agriculture and banned imported fertilizers overnight, to slow the outflow of foreign exchange.

Anger

In response, farmers left their fields empty, causing food inflation, until this policy was abandoned a few months later.

Sri Lanka is now seeking help from the IMF, but the negotiations could drag on until the end of the year, and the population is preparing for even more difficult times.

 

A market in Colombo, on March 28, 2022 in Sri Lanka

A Marché de Colombo, March 28, 2022 in Sri Lanka (Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP)

 

“I expect it to be much worse,” predicts Mr. Jafferjee.

"Unfortunately, they are unable to contain it because the people who created the crisis are still in charge of economic management."

At night, as orange light from streetlights floods Colombo's wealthier neighborhoods, large swathes of the city are plunged into near darkness.

Due to power cuts lasting several hours each day, restaurants and shops are trying to operate by candlelight. Other merchants prefer to lower their metal shutters when night comes.

The anger is aimed at the administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of a ruling family once loved by much of the country's majority Sinhalese for abruptly ending the ethnic civil war against the Tamil Tigers.

Since then, support for the Rajapaksa clan has collapsed. This month, an angry mob tried to storm the president's office.

"We have been dragged to the edge of the abyss," said Mohammed After, a student who demonstrated with thousands of people at the call of a left-wing opposition coalition.

This young man of 20, explains to AFP how the difficulties of daily life do not even leave him time to think about his slim chances of finding a job at the end of his studies.

"We can't even get essentials. We can't even make tea at home," he laments.

"Our future has become a question mark. We are protesting here because things have to change."

 

 

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