Forbes India – Sri Lanka: Sri Lankans stand on their feet, sweat and seethe as economy grinds to a halt
VSOlombo, Sri Lanka: As Sri Lankans swoon in day-long queues for fuel and suffocate from sweltering nighttime power outages by candlelight, anger mounts over the worst crisis economy in living memory.
A critical lack of foreign currency has prevented the island nation from paying for vital imports, leading to severe shortages of everything from lifesaving drugs to cement.
The long lines for fuel that begin to form before dawn are forums for public grievance, where neighbors complain bitterly about government mismanagement and worry about how to feed their families while food prices are skyrocketing.
She said she had already seen three people pass out and was supposed to be hospitalized herself for treatment, but with her husband and son at work she had no choice but to 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 very painful,” she said, declining to be named. of family.
Buses that normally transport day laborers across the capital are inactive, some hospitals have suspended routine surgeries and student exams have been postponed this month because schools ran out of paper.
“I’ve lived in Colombo for 60 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Vadivu, a domestic worker, told AFP.
Many of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are no strangers to deprivation: throughout the global oil crisis of the 1970s, authorities issued ration books for basic necessities like sugar.
But the government admits the current economic calamity is the worst since the South Asian nation gained independence in 1948, and a popular local joke now is that the rationing system offered at least some certainty that goods would be available.
A series of misfortunes have plagued the country – which only emerged from decades of civil war in 2009 – in recent years.
The coronavirus pandemic then decimated a tourism sector already reeling from the attacks and dried up the flow of remittances from Sri Lankans abroad.
Both are critical sources of foreign cash needed to pay for imports and service the country’s bloated $51 billion foreign debt.
But a far bigger factor has been government “mismanagement”, said Murtaza Jafferjee, president of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute.
The government has also wasted public money on white elephant projects, including a lotus-shaped skyscraper that dominates the Colombo skyline, complete with a revolving restaurant that now stands idle.
Farmers responded by leaving their fields empty, driving up food prices, and months later the policy was abruptly abandoned.
Sri Lanka is now seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but negotiations could drag on until the end of the year, and people are bracing for even tougher times ahead.
“I expect it to get worse,” Jafferjee said.
“Unfortunately, they are unable to contain it, because the people who created the crisis are still in charge of economic management.”
“Push to the Edge”
At night, as the orange hue of streetlights illuminate Colombo’s wealthier neighborhoods, large parts of the city are plunged into darkness.
Power outages that stretch for hours each day have restaurants and convenience stores trying to operate by candlelight. Other traders give up and lower their metal shutters for the evening.
The resentment is palpable and the frustrations have sometimes boiled over. A motorcyclist was stabbed to death outside a petrol station last week after an argument sparked by accusations of skip-the-line.
But most of the outrage is directed upwards 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.
Support for the Rajapaksa clan has since skyrocketed, with an angry mob this month trying to storm the president’s office.
“We have been pushed to the brink,” said Mohammed Afker, an engineering student who stood alongside thousands of others at a rally organized by a left-wing opposition coalition.
The 20-year-old told AFP daily struggles left him little time to consider what he knew were dim prospects of finding work after graduating.
“We are not even able to get essential items… We cannot even make tea at home,” he said.
“Our future has become a question mark. We are here to protest because things have to change.”
By Sean Gleeson and Archana Thiyagarajan
© Agence France-Presse
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