No food, no fuel and no jobs: the economic disaster that has engulfed Sri Lanka

No food, no fuel and no jobs: the economic disaster that has engulfed Sri Lanka

Before Sri Lanka’s economy collapsed, 50-year-old Nazir would spend hot days pulling a cart filled with rolls of cloth, stacks of coconuts and sacks of garlic through the narrow streets of Colombo’s Pettah market.

Now, dressed in a black cap, T-shirt and gray pants, Nazir sits idly in front of dozens of empty carts and listens to speeches on his cell phone. He turns up the volume and points to the screen: “Aragalaya!,” referring to the Sri Lankan popular revolt that fired its president last week.

On a good day, Nazir earned the equivalent of $8, roughly enough to feed his family of six, for whom he is the breadwinner. “Now the business is dead,” he said. If he doesn’t get a job today, he’ll go home with less than a dollar in his pocket.

Sri LankaThe economic collapse has been blamed on former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who flew to Singapore after initially fleeing the country on a military plane to the Maldives as a wave of protests rocked the island nation.

Protesters were furious with the president for borrowing heavily to build Chinese-backed projects and his eccentric policy-making, which included a ban on fertilizer imports.

The mismanagement of the economy is further aggravated by the decline in tourism revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which it caused Sri Lanka default and caused its currency to fall.

Sri Lanka, which has run out of foreign currency, has experienced severe fuel shortages, leading to kilometer-long queues for petrol © Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Sri Lanka’s debt pile is $51 billion, just over half of which is owed to bilateral and multilateral lenders, including China.

The economic downturn had devastating consequences. “My family skips meals,” Nazir said. “At dinner, we share pieces of bread with coconut sambal. I use firewood for cooking because there is no fuel or kerosene.”

Stories like Nazir’s echo throughout Pettah Market, once a bustling maze of boutiques and stalls selling everything from the latest electronics and washing-up liquid to spices and coffee.

But the half-empty streets surrounding the country’s most important market, located just beyond Colombo’s harbor, are an indication failed sri lankawhich is affected by rising prices, rising unemployment, poverty and hunger.

With foreign exchange reserves depleted, the nation of 22 million people ran out of money to import fuel, leading to mile-long queues at gas stations. The lack of fuel has effectively put many people out of work and forced the country’s schools, offices and businesses to close.

On the other side of the market, MT Niyas, 55, drinks his second coffee of the day at Lucky Cool Spot, a cafe that serves workers pastries, hot drinks and cigarettes sold individually.

His burnt body covered from head to toe in flour, Niyas said his daily wage for carrying sacks on his back had more than halved to SLR 2,500 ($7) as trucks stopped coming and bus fares doubled to 70 rupees.

“I’ve been working here since 1981 and this is the worst it’s ever been,” said Niyas. “It’s good that the old president left. All we ask of whoever takes his place is that we have three full meals a day. It can’t be that hard!”

No food, no fuel and no jobs: the economic disaster that has engulfed Sri Lanka
MT Niyas: ‘All we seek. . . is that we can have three full meals a day’ © Antoni Slodkowski/FT

Nisham, the bearded 26-year-old owner, chimes in as he clears tables for new customers, returns change and pours fresh tea: “Workers would come in maybe 10 times during a long day for a quick tea or a chat. Now they come maybe twice a day.”

He rejects the staggering price hikes in the last quarter: the price of milk powder has tripled to SLR 3,000 per kg, while the prices of sugar and even tea, which Sri Lanka exports around the world, have more than doubled.

Nisham is open about his hatred for the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades. But there is also a hint of wounded pride, echoed in many other conversations. “We have many natural resources in our beautiful country: tea, rubber, coffee, gems,” he said. “We should be able to do better than this.”

He and his fellow shop owners complained that shadow brokers stepped in to fill the void after banks stopped lending money. A 65-year-old woman named Aruna, who sells curry leaves, said she borrowed SLR 10,000 to sustain her business. But she has to pay back SLR 1,000 a day for 12 days.

Day laborers like those at the Lucky Cool Spot are among the hardest hit, but they are hardly the exception. The World Food Program said 3 million people were receiving emergency humanitarian aid after food inflation hit 80 percent last month. Almost 90 percent of all households skip meals or save to make food last longer, the organization added.

Afzal Fasehudeen, a civil engineer who came to Pettah to stock up on leeks and carrots, had no doubt who was to blame for the crisis.

“This entire debacle was caused by gross mismanagement and a complete lack of proper planning. The Rajapaksas have started construction projects right, left and center — it’s ridiculous,” Fasehudeen said.

As the construction boom has stalled, Fasehudeen said he and many of his friends who graduated from college two years ago are planning to leave the country.

“My company could go bankrupt soon. I don’t want to leave, but if nothing changes in the next few months I will try to find a job in one of the Gulf countries,” Fasehudeen said.

“Everything is going up, but not the income. People are angry.”

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