‘There’s Nothing’: Scarcity Deepens Desperation in Sri Lanka


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The woman stood in line for more than 14 hours for a passport, desperate to escape the economic crisis engulfing Sri Lanka.

Selwi Thangawelu, a Sri Lankan mother of two, had secured a job as a housekeeper in Kuwait, money she needs for their school fees and books. Her husband’s job as a garbage collector is no longer enough to cover food and fuel, the price of which has soared as the country’s situation grows increasingly dire.

For three weeks, Ms. Thangawelu and her husband have survived on rice, saving the vegetables they can afford for their children.

“I am a little scared,” she said, “but there’s no way to stay.”

Sri Lanka, an island nation of nearly 22 million people, was once an economic hope, with a highly educated populace, a solid middle class and median income among the highest in South Asia. Now many people are living on the edge, unable to buy even the basics.

Grocery shelves are barren, and what food is left is increasingly unaffordable. Fuel supplies are so low that people wait in line for days for a few gallons. Some people are marooned at home, while others travel long distances on foot, the main traffic on streets that months ago were busy with cars and auto rickshaws.

“This is the first time in my life that it is so hard,” said Deyarathna Liyanage, an 80-year-old farmer.

His family is among the more fortunate. At a time when many in the country are going hungry, they can subsist on their vegetable garden, banana trees and rice from a small paddy.

“There’s nothing to eat. There’s no petrol. We can’t go anywhere,” he added. “There’s nothing at all.”

The economic crisis came to a head this weekend, as thousands of people stormed the official residence and office of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, demanding his resignation. A breakaway mob burned down the private home of the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Rajapaksa hasn’t been seen or heard from publicly since the protesters’ break-in, but on Monday a spokesman for the prime minister reconfirmed the president’s plan to step down.

Whoever ends up running Sri Lanka will inherit a crisis without an easy resolution. The country is essentially bankrupt, financial straits made worse by rising inflation worldwide. And vital creditors, like India, have indicated that their largess is not unlimited, leaving the country without much ability to import much-needed fuel, food and medicine.

Ordinary Sri Lankans are paying the price for government mismanagement and missteps.

Mr. Liyanage used to contribute to the family’s income by selling rice, which he grew using chemical fertilizers from the government. Then officials banned fertilizers overnight, battering harvests. After the misguided policy was lifted, the price of fertilizer soared, and the government stopped giving it away.

He now uses compost, which he said resulted in yields only about a fifth of what he used to harvest.

“Before there was a good profit from rice,” he said. “Now, it’s a loss if we sell it, but it’s still cheaper to grow than to buy.”

Mohammed Rafiq, who sells mangos and mangosteens on the street, has so few customers that he has halved his prices, even though he is paying more to his supplier in southern Sri Lanka.

There is “less food, less electricity,” said Mr. Rafiq, a father of four. “Everything is less.”

The streets of Colombo are mostly empty of cars now, except for those parked in lines stretching several blocks waiting for a turn at a fuel pump. Every few days, Sri Lanka’s energy minister posts updates on Twitter about the expected arrival of diesel and gasoline shipments — and people rush to get them.

Hamdan Fawmy, who normally drives tourists to Sri Lanka’s famous beaches and Buddhist temples, has hardly worked in months. Tourism, once the lifeblood of the Sri Lankan economy, has evaporated, first hit by the Covid pandemic and then by the turmoil.

He waited in his compact S.U.V. for four days this week to refuel. With strict rations in place, he was only given enough for two days of driving.

He fears the protesters’ success — in forcing Mr. Rajapaksa to resign — will only make things worse. “If there’s no government, will it be eight days of waiting? Will there be fuel at all?”

The inequalities in the country have deepened in the desperation. For a small sliver of the population, the economic collapse is more of an inconvenience than a true hardship. Wealthier Sri Lankans with access to funds outside the country can more easily ride out the inflation pressures, given the rapidly falling rupee.

At a branch of an upmarket grocery store, Keells, there was plenty of fresh produce and bulk grains, although prices have tripled since April. Racks of imported ice cream, chocolate and alcohol were empty.

On Sunday, women in finely stitched silk saris and men in bespoke suits filled the ballroom at the Kingsbury, one of Colombo’s luxury hotels, for an elaborate wedding engagement party. A day earlier, protesters with tear gas burning their eyes found the doors to the hotel locked.

“Sri Lanka’s poor and middle classes have shown that they are very politicized, they have no patience any longer, they are ready to act and take direct action any moment,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a professor of political science at University of Colombo.

The crisis has derailed years of progress. Schools have been closed in recent weeks in a bid to save fuel. Pharmacies are out of standard over-the-counter medicines. Companies have forced employees to take pay cuts.

As head of human resources for a Sri Lankan company, Gimhanikari Yawasam, 41, has had to field many difficult calls from employees upset about recent salary cuts. “From an organizational level, we are doing our best to support their well-being, but what we can offer is limited,” she said.

She and other employees started working from home several weeks ago, since public transportation options have disappeared, with the nation’s fuel supplies nearly depleted.

At home, she and her children find their work is often interrupted by power cuts. When her mother suffered from a stomach bug recently, Ms. Yawasam couldn’t find antibiotics.

“We have been struggling with so many issues, but now it has become critical,” she said.

An increasing number of Sri Lankans are eager to join the 3 million people in the diaspora, many of them refugees from the country’s civil war, which ended in 2009.

In this crisis, people have been standing in line for days at Colombo’s passport office. Dozens trying to flee by boat have been apprehended in the Indian Ocean by the Australian coast guard.

Paramasivam Satheesh, 36, has driven an auto rickshaw — the most popular form of public transport in Colombo — for 15 years. The wait for fuel has gotten so long that he has stopped picking up fares.

He has used the little fuel he has left to drive his wife, Ganesan Kajanthiny, 35, and their 5-year-old son, Magadheesh, to Galle Face, an oceanfront park.

There they can pick up free food from the makeshift protest camp that has operated for months with the mission of forcing Mr. Rajapaksa’s resignation.

Mr. Satheesh is wary of the protest winding down too soon. “If they stop giving it, we’ll have to beg on the road,” he said.

His plan, if the fuel shortage eases, is to start picking up fares again, to earn enough money to apply for a passport. He could then look for work as a welder in Europe or the Middle East, and sell his auto rickshaw.

Glancing at his wife, Ms. Kajanthiny, in the back seat, he said, “She can manage alone.”

Aanya Wipulasena and Skandha Gunasekara contributed reporting from Colombo, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.

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