Sri Lanka’s crisis once paralyzes the burgeoning middle class

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Miraj 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 the country’s history, has changed his and the lives of many others. in its budding middle class.

Families who have never had to think twice about fuel or food struggle to make ends meet three meals a day and cut back on portions. Days are spent waiting in line to buy scarce fuel. The crisis has derailed many years of progress towards a relatively comfortable lifestyle, which is being pursued throughout South Asia.

Sri Lanka, an island nation of 22 million, is heading for bankruptcy after accumulating $ 51 billion in foreign debt. There is hardly any money to import goods such as petrol, milk, cooking gas and toilet paper.

Before things started to unravel, Madushanka, a 27-year-old accountant, studied in Japan, hoping to work there. He moved home in 2018 after his father’s death, to care for his mother and sister.

Madushanka completed her studies and found a job in tourism, but lost it in the shadow of 2019 terrorist attacks that rattled the country and its economy.

The next job evaporated during the pandemic. He now works for a management company, his fourth job in four years. But even with a reliable paycheck, he can barely make ends meet.

Food prices have tripled in recent weeks, forcing the family to seek out government rice distributions and donations from nearby Buddhist temples and mosques. Madushanka’s savings are complete.

“Right now there is only enough to survive – if there are months where we do not get extra benefits from the outside, we just have to hold on somehow,” he said.

Even past crises, such as Sri Lanka’s nearly 30-year-long civil war that ended in 2009 or the devastating tsunami in 2004, did not cause this degree of pain or anxiety for those outside the affected areas, experts say. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Wednesday that the economy had “completely collapsed”.

Until recently, Sri Lanka’s middle class, which is estimated by experts to make up between 15 and 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 into hardships they have never been exposed to before, like getting basic things, not knowing if they could get fuel despite spending hours in line,” he said. Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher. at the Center for Political Alternatives in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

“They have really been moved like no other time in the last three decades,” Fonseka said.

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

“The ambition was to own a home and a car, be able to send your children to a good school, eat out every few weeks and afford a vacation here and there,” said economist Chayu Damsinghe. “But now it feels like the middle class has lost its dream,” he added.

“If the middle class is fighting this way, imagine how hard hit the more vulnerable are,” Fonseka said.

Protests have raged since April, with protesters blaming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government for political mistakes that torpedoed 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 resign. His successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, banks 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 could continue until 2024, when the war in Ukraine disrupts global supply chains, causing some commodity prices to rise.

Sri Lanka’s economic woes were exacerbated by a ban last year on imported chemical fertilizers that angered farmers and damaged the harvest. The ban was lifted after six months, but the damage had already been done, leading to food shortages.

Public officials have been given three months off every Friday to save on fuel and grow their own fruits and vegetables as food reserves are running out. The inflation rate for food is 57% according to official data, and 70% of Sri Lankan homes surveyed by UNICEF in May reported reduced food consumption.

One recent afternoon, residents of a busy vegetable market in Colombo, sweating under the sun, swarmed as they carefully compared the prices of tomatoes and oranges with the prices of markets they had visited before.

Sriyani Kankanamge, 63, said she has stopped buying meat or fish and only buys a few kinds of vegetables.

“I’m angry. Prices of all important goods are rising – rice, sugar, milk, chicken, fish. How can people eat?” she said bitterly.

Madushanka’s family has chosen to give up three daily meals for just a late breakfast and dinner.

On a recent Friday, his mother, Ambepitiyage Indrani, painted coconut and boiled a pot of water over a thin stack of firewood. When their gas bottle ran out in May, the thought of standing in a queue with no guarantee of success seemed in vain. The kitchen ceiling, which was once shiny white, is now streaked with soot from the cooking fire. An electric stove bought a few years ago has been sold.

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

“It’s been the hardest time of my life,” she said, recalling how just a few months earlier she used to cook extra food to give away to others in the neighborhood.

The family’s radio and television have been off for weeks, their scooter parked outside, covered. They hardly use it anymore, they prefer to walk or take the bus rather than queuing for fuel.

When the daily three-hour power outage hits, Madushanka sometimes goes to the main protest site outside the president’s office.

Like many Sri Lankans, he feels the only resort may be to leave.

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

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