Amid the country’s economic collapse, many Sri Lankans are struggling to eat


The queue at the soup kitchen window, where volunteers hand out plates full of curry and rice, is long but orderly, with men, women and children calmly waiting their turn for their meal.

Patience is something many Sri Lankans cling to as food prices have soared 90% and cooking fuel and petrol are in short supply in this island nation crippled by economic collapse and the political instability.

Ranjani Subramanium, 39, shyly eats at the community kitchen outside the capital, Colombo, grateful for the hot lunch. The single mother constantly worries about how to feed her young daughters. Her meager income consists of selling betel leaves to support her daughters, aged 2 and 12, and her 15-year-old son.

“We are so helpless. I am unable to give my children just one good meal a day because of the fall of the country,” she told CBC News through a Sinhalese translator. Before that, she said they ate three good meals a day.

Now, “we have nothing left”, she says with resignation.

Single mother Ranjani Subramanium, 39, is seen at a soup kitchen with her two young daughters. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Subramanium spends nights worrying about the future of her children, with schools in Sri Lanka limited to just three days of class attendance a week due to fuel shortages plaguing the country. Subramanium cannot afford the computer her eldest daughter needs to connect to scheduled online classes on the remaining two days of the week.

“It makes me sad when she tells me that the other kids are studying online but she has no way to join them,” Subramanium said.

She is not alone in her struggles to feed her family. Food prices in Sri Lanka are double what they were and the country is bankrupt, a dire situation that many blame on the ruling class and Sri Lanka’s recently ousted president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“I see no light at the end of the tunnel”

The community kitchen, one of 12 across the country, serves hot lunches every day of the week and runs entirely on donations and the work of volunteers, who seek firewood to prepare the food due to cooking fuel shortages.

“Sometimes we have people who only survive on that particular meal for a day,” said Moses Akash, director of Voice for Voiceless Foundation, the charity that runs the soup kitchens. They are getting busier by the day and Akash said he is working on opening more sites in the coming weeks.

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“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel at the moment as the need increases,” he said.

As vendors in Colombo’s once-bustling Pettah Market sit idle waiting for customers to arrive, they talk about having to skip meals themselves and pray to earn enough money to pay the rent.

Vegetable seller Mohamed Ikram saw his sales drop by more than a third, leaving his daily income at the equivalent of around C$9.

“People just ask the prices and leave without buying anything,” he said through an interpreter.

A vegetable seller in Sri Lanka.
Vegetable seller Mohamed Ikram saw his sales drop by more than a third, leaving his daily income at the equivalent of around C$9. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

This pain has hit Sri Lanka’s poor hardest, with a crumbling economy and depleted foreign currency reserves. Earlier this year, as inflation continued to soar, protesters turned out in droves to voice their displeasure with the ruling class, seen as complicit in the financial meltdown.

In May, the country defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history, and while it is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to reach a rescue agreement, the government is scrambling to muster enough money to keep the economy afloat.

The crisis forced Sumila Wanaguru, an economist at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, to adapt. She now spends her time analyzing the country’s daily cash flow in minute detail to try to keep it in balance with what’s coming out. She said she and her team were reduced to begging and begging allies for lines of credit and currency swaps.

A Sri Lankan woman in an office.
Sumila Wanaguru, an economist at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, spends her time analyzing the country’s cash flows in great detail to try to keep them in balance with what’s coming out. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“Work is very difficult these days,” said Wanaguru, director of the bank’s international operations division. “Our [cash] supply is limited because the level of central bank liquid foreign exchange reserves is at an extremely low level.”

“It’s humiliating”

This means that essential imports such as medicine and fuel are also at extremely low levels.

Steven Labrooy, who was queuing outside a Colombo petrol station for a weekly quota of 20 liters – half a tank for an average car – could barely contain his outrage.

“It’s humiliating. I’m so furious with the politicians who caused this.”

Labrooy said he was plagued with a thought in the back of his mind, a deep fear that no one would be held responsible for sending Sri Lanka into economic collapse.

“If past records are to pass in this country, people blindly rob the country and then get away with it.”

WATCH | The political missteps behind Sri Lanka’s economic crisis:

How Sri Lankans are coping with political and economic turmoil

CBC’s Salimah Shivji provides insight into how political and economic turmoil in Sri Lanka is hurting ordinary people.

The nagging frustration of Sri Lankans enduring economic agony for reasons beyond their control boiled over last month, with thousands of protesters storming the residence and office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ultimately ousting him from the power.

Protesters blamed Rajapaksa and his family’s nearly two-decade grip on power for the economic collapse precipitated by their gross mismanagement of Sri Lanka’s finances.

“On one level, it’s fundamental incompetence. On another level, it’s the arrogance of not listening” to the public or their advisers, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives based in Colombo.

He said Gotabaya Rajapaksa is directly responsible for the massive scale of the crisis Sri Lanka finds itself in, with its affinity for eccentric policy-making.

“He reduced the tax base and as a result the Treasury lost something like Rs 600 billion,” Saravanamuttu said. “Then he decided to switch to organic fertilizers for agriculture overnight. The decision itself was not bad. But to do it overnight was disastrous for the agriculture of this country.”

A new president

The government also repeatedly ignored warnings that financial ruin was imminent.

Rajapaksa’s replacement as president, longtime politician Ranil Wickremesinghe, was elected in late July by his parliamentary colleagues.

He is not viewed favorably by many protesters, and Saravanamuttu said an unfavorable view could cause problems as the country progresses in bailout talks with the IMF.

“There are going to be very tough conditionalities. People are going to have to make even more sacrifices,” the analyst said, adding that the government’s main task is to convince people that tough reforms are not only necessary, but possible .

“The question is: can the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe do it?

Those involved in the protest movement, which has been the target of a crackdown by authorities since Wickremesinghe took office, believe the answer is “no”.

A Sri Lankan man is sitting in his house.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, says the current economic crisis is partly the result of the former president’s “incompetence”. It is also “the arrogance of not listening” to both the public and its advisers. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“I don’t accept Ranil Wickremesinghe as president,” said a full-time protester, whose name is withheld from CBC because she fears arrest. “He’s not the kind of system change we’ve been asking for for four months, so we’re not happy with his leadership.”

The protester fears her movements will be tracked, after several of the most prominent protest leaders were arrested, while others were hit with travel bans. The main site of the protest camp opposite the presidential offices was also ordered by the police.

“We just don’t feel safe,” she told CBC. “Many of my friends have already had visits to their homes from the police.”

In search of economic reforms

Opposition MP Harsha De Silva is ready to give Wickremesinghe, her former boss, a chance to try and tackle the worsening crisis. But he believes a crackdown on protesters who stormed the former president’s office is counterproductive and would undermine the urgency of reforms to revive the economy.

“It was civil disobedience,” De Silva said. “These are not criminals to arrest. A guy was arrested because he sat in the president’s chair. What the hell is that?”

Three women protest against the government in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, many anti-government protesters fear reprisals. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

De Silva is pushing for a cross-party cabinet, arguing that the country’s people want to see politicians working together to “reset” the country and implement sweeping reforms.

“People are angry. People are disappointed. People have lost hope for the future,” De Silva said.

“Everyone is trying to get out of here,” he added, referring to long queues outside passport offices of Sri Lankans hoping to escape the crisis.

But not everyone can consider this option. For those still inside the country, crisis is inevitable, even at a high-end pharmacy in an affluent neighborhood in central Colombo.

Manning the counter, Sathees Murugesan said he was able to keep his shelves stocked with most drugs, but the markup was staggering. Almost all of his inventory, from aspirin to asthma pumps, has doubled or tripled in price and he doesn’t know how long that will continue.

“No one really knows what’s going to happen,” the pharmacist said. “It’s like every day, people wake up and just hope that today is going to be okay.”


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