Faced with the worst economic crisis Sri Lanka has ever known, the anger of residents is increasingly palpable, whether it be in endless lines at gas stations or in the candlelight during a power outage.
With a severe shortage of foreign exchange, the island is unable to import essential goods, resulting in a severe shortage of goods ranging from life-saving medicines to cement.
In the long lines that line up before dawn at gas stations, everyone is worried about how they can feed their families with soaring food prices.
“I’ve been here for five hours,” Sagayarani, a Colombo housewife, told AFP as she waited for her ration of kerosene to light the stoves of the capital’s poorest households.
She says she’s already seen three people pass out and that she herself should be in the hospital for treatment, but with her husband and son at work, she has no choice but to die waiting in the hot morning sun.
“I haven’t eaten anything, I’m dizzy and very hot, but what should I do? A lot of suffering,” she explains, refusing to give her last name.
At the port, trucks cannot deliver food and building materials to other urban centers, or bring tea from plantations in the highlands in the center of the country.
– “Mismanagement” –
Buses carrying daily workers in the capital have been halted, and some hospitals have suspended non-emergency work. Exams have been postponed this month due to paper shortages.
The government acknowledged that the current crisis is the worst since the country gained independence in 1948.
In recent years, the country, which only emerged from decades of civil war in 2009, has experienced a series of horrific events.
Agriculture was hit by a disastrous drought in 2016, tourism was decimated by Islamist attacks on Easter Sunday 2019 that killed at least 279 people, and then the Covid-19 pandemic brought remittances from Sri Lanka to a halt.
Tourism and the diaspora are two vital sources of foreign exchange needed to pay for imports and service the country’s $51 billion (46 billion euros) external debt.
But according to Murtaza Jafferjee, president of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute, “government mismanagement” is far more important.
Mr Jafferjee points to chronic government budget deficits, unjustified tax cuts just before the pandemic that robbed the state of revenue, and subsidies for electricity and other public services that disproportionately benefited Sri Lanka’s wealthiest people.
Bad policy decisions exacerbated the problems. Last year, the authorities announced that Sri Lanka would become the first country in the world to practice fully organic agriculture, and overnight banned fertilizer imports to slow down foreign exchange outflows.
– Anger –
In response, farmers left their fields empty, causing food inflation, until the policy was abandoned a few months later.
Now Sri Lanka is turning to the IMF for help, but negotiations could drag on until the end of the year, and the population is preparing for even more difficult times.
“I expect it to be much worse,” Jafferjee predicts.
“Unfortunately, they cannot contain it because the people who created the crisis are still in charge of running the economy.”
At night, when the orange light of the streetlights floods the more affluent areas of Colombo, large sections of the city are plunged into near darkness.
Due to power outages lasting several hours every day, restaurants and shops are struggling to operate by candlelight. Other merchants prefer to lower their metal shutters as night falls.
Anger is directed at the administration of Gotabai Rajapaksa, a member of the ruling family once beloved by most of the country’s Sinhalese majority for abruptly ending the ethnic civil war against the Tamil tigers.
Since then, support for the Rajapaksa clan has ceased. This month, an angry mob attempted to storm the president’s office.
“We have been dragged to the edge of the abyss,” said Mohammed Afker, a student who took part in a rally of thousands calling for the left-wing opposition coalition.
This young man of 20 explains to AFP how the pressures of everyday life leave him no time to even consider his slim chances of finding a job after graduation.
“We can’t even buy the bare necessities. We can’t even make tea at home,” he laments.
“Our future is in question. We are protesting here because everything has to change.”