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Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis Getting “Worse”

Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis: Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are no strangers to shortages.

Colombo:

As Sri Lankans fainted in queues all day to get oil and scorched by the suffocating night blackout by candlelight, anger escalated over the worst economic crisis in memory.

A critical shortage of foreign currency has left the island nation unable to pay for vital imports, leading to severe shortages in everything from life-saving medicines to cement.

The long line for fuel that began to form before dawn was a forum for public grievances, where neighbors complained bitterly about government mismanagement and worried about how to feed their families when food prices soared.

“I have been standing here for the past five hours,” Sagayarani, a housewife, told AFP in Colombo as she waited for her share of kerosene, used to burn down the kitchens of poorer households in the capital.

She said she had seen three people faint and herself was supposed to be in hospital for treatment, but with her husband and son at work she had no choice but to wait under the scorching morning sun.

“I didn’t eat anything, I felt very dizzy and it was very hot, but what can we do? It’s very difficult,” he said, declining to give his last name.

Trucks at the port are unable to transport food and building materials to other city centers, or bring back tea from farms located around Sri Lanka’s green inland hills.

Buses that normally transport daily workers across the capital are derelict, some hospitals have postponed routine surgeries, and student exams are postponed this month because schools run out of papers.

“I have lived in Colombo for 60 years and I have never seen anything like this,” Vadivu, a maid told AFP.

“Nothing to eat, nothing to drink,” he added. “Politicians live in luxury and we beg in the streets.”

Expect worse

Many of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are no strangers to shortages: during the global oil crisis of the 1970s, authorities issued ration books for necessities such as sugar.

But the government admits the current economic disaster is the worst since the South Asian country achieved independence in 1948, and a popular local insinuation now is that the ration system at least offers some certainty that goods will be available.

Several unfortunate series have plagued the country – emerging from a civil war for decades only in 2009 – in recent years.

Farmers were hit by a crippling drought in 2016 and the Islamic Easter Sunday bombing three years later, which killed at least 279 people, led to a wave of cancellations from foreign travelers.

The coronavirus pandemic then devastated the tourism sector which had been rocked by the attack and dried up the flow of remittances from Sri Lanka to overseas.

Both are critical sources of foreign money needed to pay for imports and pay off the country’s soaring $ 51 billion foreign debt.

But a much bigger factor is government “mismanagement,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, chairman of the Colombo -based Advocata Institute think tank.

He blamed years of chronic budget deficits, unannounced tax cuts shortly before the epidemic that caused government revenue to fall freely, and subsidies on electricity and other utilities that disproportionately benefited Sri Lankans.

The government has also distributed public money for white elephant projects, including a lotus -shaped skyscraper that dominates the Colombo skyline, with a revolving restaurant currently inactive.

Poor policy decisions have added to the problem. Last year officials declared Sri Lanka would be the world’s first fully organic farming country and imported fertilizers were banned overnight, in a real effort to slow foreign currency outflows.

Farmers responded by leaving their farms empty, raising food prices, and a few months later the policy was abruptly dropped.

Sri Lanka is currently seeking help from the International Monetary Fund, but negotiations could continue until the end of the year, and the public is preparing for a leaner time ahead.

“I expected it to get worse,” Jafferjee said.

“Unfortunately, they can’t curb it, because the people who created the crisis are still responsible for the management of the economy.”

‘Pushed to the threshold’

At night, when the orange hue of the street lights illuminates the richer neighborhood of Colombo, the city’s large pockets are in near darkness.

Hours of daily rolling power cuts cause restaurants and corner shops to try to operate under dim candlelight. Other business owners gave up and pulled on their metal shutters for the evening.

Hatred is very evident and frustration is sometimes exaggerated. A fatal motorcyclist was stabbed outside a gas station last week after a dispute sparked by allegations of cutting the line.

But much of the anger is directed at the administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of the ruling family who was once loved by the country’s vast Sinhala majority for bringing the ethnic civil war against the Tamil Tigers to a brutal end.

Support for the Rajapaksa faction has since tapered, with angry crowds this month trying to storm the president’s office.

Other demonstrations are currently quieter, organized through social media and taking the form of silent candlelight warnings during dark nights.

“We have been pushed into the abyss,” said Mohammed Afker, an engineering student who stood with thousands of others at a rally held by the left -wing opposition coalition.

The 20-year-old told AFP that the daily struggles have left him little time even to figure out what he knows is the poor prospect of finding work after he graduates.

“We can’t even get necessities … We can’t even make tea at home,” he said.

“Our future has been a question mark. We are here to protest because things need to change.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)

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