The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe joining of the government was expected to turnaround the degrading tragic economic situation wherein child malnutrition figures are making Sri Lanka the 7th worst in the world. The country is living almost on a “ship to mouth” basis where the delay of a ship, or the cancellation of a ship bringing fuel, can lead to enormous hardships. More than six weeks after the new prime minister took over, the deadweight he has to pull is turning out to be too much. It is not possible to say that the economic situation has changed for the better. If at all, it has turned worse. The queues outside the fuel stations that are still open, and only a few remain open, are longer than ever. Most fuel stations are closed.
The situation in the country has become so dire that the government has decided that government workers should stay at home for two weeks. Government schools too have been directed to shut down along with government-supported private schools. Only a few of them would have the capacity to conduct online classes as was seen during the Covid lockdowns. In addition to being physically stunted, the way is being paved for a younger generation that is deficient in the growth of their mental and intellectual faculties.
The country appears to have reached a position of stability. But this is deceptive. Every day the price of food increases. Less can be bought with the wages earned that day. The anticipated food shortages have manifested themselves though the sufferings and deprivations are private and personal for the most part. They come out into the open when an office worker may say that they have no money to go back home on the bus at the end of the working day. Or it manifests itself in the statement of the UN representative Hanaa Singer-Hamdy who has said that 22 per cent of the Sri Lankan population or 4.9 million people live in need of food assistance at the moment. She said there is a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in paddy crop harvest in this period.
The situation in the country appears to be getting less hopeful by the day. The Galle Face protest site reflects this despondency. The material conditions of life are getting worse, not better. It is becoming harder for people to make the sacrifice for positive change that may not take place. The lines in front of petrol stations get longer. The number of them that have closed temporarily has increased. The prime minister is warning that there will be food scarcity in the next few months and people should be prepared to settle for two meals a day instead of the regular three. The Colombo mayor has announced that the municipality will set up “soup kitchens” to meet the needs of those who will soon have little or nothing to eat.
The 50th day anniversary of the Aragalaya took place in a generally calm manner. There were special events organized on Saturday including a march from Independence Square to the Galle Face protest site. I met a veteran Colombo-based Tamil journalist who was one of those who made the trek, along with his teenage son. They had come to express their solidarity with the protestors and not to engage in confrontation with the government. So they did not join the smaller group that decided not to stop at the Galle Face protest site, but went on to try and forcibly enter the President’s House. This group was pushed back by the police who tear gassed them to prevent their entrance to the road that led to the President’s House.
The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of ministers and state ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual. This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and apparently spontaneously to attack their homes and properties. Last week they overrode the opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster. They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the state for their losses.
The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation has been overshadowed by the violence that took place immediately prior to it and after it. The PM’s meeting in the morning with local councilors of his party, numbering over a thousand, was followed by their attack on the demonstration site on Galle Face Seafront outside the PM’s residence. For over a month this had been the location of peaceful protests by mostly youth from all over the country, but also families, office workers and Colombo residents on an ad hoc basis. The wrecking of the demonstration site led to large scale mob attacks against the residences of government ministers, many of which were torched. A government MP has also died in the melee.
There has always been something special about Sri Lanka. In 140 AD the geographer Ptolemy drew a map of the island that made it much larger than it is. This was probably on account of the stories he had heard about its diversity, where forests, mountains, oceans and cities inhabited by diverse peoples could only have existed in a much larger entity. At the time of Independence from colonial rule, the British colonial administrator Leonard Woolf was so enamoured of the country and its potential that he described it as the Switzerland of the East. After Independence, too, the country retained its attraction to foreigners. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore wanted his country to emulate Sri Lanka as late as the 1960s.