Sri Lanka’s crisis is crippling the once-developing middle class

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Mirage Madushanka never thought he would need government rations to ensure his family could eat two meals a day, but Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, the worst in its history, has reshaped his life and the lives of many others. in the burgeoning middle class.

Families who have never had to think twice about fuel or food, struggle to manage three meals a day, reducing portions. Days are spent waiting in queues to buy scarce fuel. The crisis has derailed years of progress toward relatively comfortable lifestyles that are coveted across South Asia.

Sri Lanka, an island nation of 22 million people, is rushing towards bankruptcy after amassing $51 billion in foreign debt. There is hardly any money to import items such as gasoline, milk, cooking gas and toilet paper.

Before things started to fall apart, Madushanka, a 27-year-old accountant, had studied in Japan and hoped to work there. He returned home in 2018 after the death of his father, to take care of his mother and sister.

Madushanka finished his studies and found a job in tourism, but he lost it in light of the 2019 terrorist attacks that shook the country and its economy.

The next post has evaporated during the pandemic. Now working for a management company, his fourth job in four years. But even with a reliable salary, he could hardly support his family.

Food prices have tripled in recent weeks, forcing the family to seek government aid of rice and donations from Buddhist temples and mosques nearby. Madhushanka’s savings are completed.

“Right now, there’s just enough to survive – if there are months where we don’t get extra benefits from the outside, we have to stick somehow,” he said.

Not even previous crises, such as the nearly 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009 or the devastating tsunami of 2004, have caused this degree of pain or distress to those outside the affected areas, experts say. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said Wednesday that the economy had “completely collapsed”.

Until recently, Sri Lanka’s middle class, estimated by experts to be 15-20% of the country’s urban population, generally enjoyed economic security and comfort.

“The crisis has really shocked the middle class – it has forced them to face difficulties they had not had before, such as getting basic items, not knowing if they could get fuel despite spending hours in line,” said Bhavani Fonseca, Senior Researcher. At the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

“They have been traumatized like never before in the past three decades,” Fonseca said.

Sri Lanka’s middle class began to swell in the 1970s after the country’s economy opened up to more trade and investment. It has grown steadily since then, with Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP higher than that of many of its neighbors.

“The ambition was to have a house and a car, to be able to send your kids to a good school, eat out every few weeks, and take a vacation here and there,” said economist Chayo Damsinghe. “But now it seems that the middle class has lost its dream,” he added.

“If the middle class is struggling in this way, imagine how much damage it takes to the most vulnerable people,” Fonseca said.

Protests have erupted since April, with protesters blaming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government for policy mistakes that have blasted the economy and plunged the nation into chaos. In May, a wave of violent protests forced Rajapaksa’s brother and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down. His successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, He is counting on a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund and help from friendly countries like India and China to keep the economy afloat.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Last week, Wickremesinghe said he feared food shortages would continue into 2024 as the war in Ukraine disrupts global supply chains, causing prices of some goods to soar.

Sri Lanka’s economic predicament was exacerbated by last year’s ban on the import of chemical fertilizers, which angered farmers and damaged crops. The ban was lifted after six months, but the damage had already been done, resulting in food shortages.

Government officials have been given three months off every Friday to save fuel and grow their own fruits and vegetables as food reserves run low. Food inflation has reached 57%, according to official data, and 70% of Sri Lankan households surveyed by UNICEF in May reported reduced food consumption.

One afternoon, residents swept through Colombo’s busy vegetable market, sweating under the glare of the sun as they carefully compared the prices of tomatoes and oranges with those of the markets they had visited earlier.

Sriani Kankanamji, 63, said she has stopped buying meat or fish and has only bought a few types of vegetables.

“I am angry. The prices of every staple are going up – rice, sugar, milk, chicken and fish. How can people eat it?” she said bitterly.

The Madushanka family chose to forgo three meals a day for a late breakfast and dinner only.

One last Friday, his mother, Ambipetiaj Indrani, was grinding coconuts and boiling a pot of water over a thin pile of firewood. When their gas cylinders ran out in May, the idea of ​​waiting in line without a guarantee of success seemed futile. The kitchen ceiling, which was once glossy white, is now speckled with soot from the cooking fire. An electric stove was bought a few years ago.

Indrani has glaucoma in her left eye and she uses her eye drops once a day instead of twice as recommended by her doctor. The price of the drug has quadrupled.

“It was the hardest time of my life,” she said, recalling how just a few months ago she had been cooking extra food to give to others in the neighbourhood.

The family’s radio and TV have been shut down for weeks, and their scooters are parked outside and covered. They don’t use it anymore, preferring to walk or take the bus instead of standing in line for fuel.

When the power goes out for three hours a day, Madushanka sometimes heads to the main protest site outside the president’s office.

Like many Sri Lankans, he feels the only way out is to leave.

“I had a simple dream – to build a house, buy a car, work full time during the week and go on vacation now and then. I wanted to get married and raise a family,” he said. “But I’m afraid this dream is no longer possible, at least not in this country .”

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