Sri Lanka’s crisis ever crumbling middle class

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Miraj Madushanka never thought he would need government rations to ensure his family could afford to eat twice a day, but Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, the worst in its history, has Changed his and many others’ lives again. in its growing middle class.

Families that have never had to think twice about fuel or food are struggling to manage three meals a day, cutting down on portions. Days go by waiting in line to buy scarce fuel. The crisis has derailed years of progress towards relatively comfortable lifestyles across South Asia.

Sri Lanka, an island nation with a population of 22 million, is on the verge of bankruptcy after $51 billion in foreign debt. There is hardly any money to import items like petrol, milk, cooking gas and toilet paper.

Before the case opened, Madushanka, a 27-year-old accountant, studied in Japan and hoped to work there. After the death of his father, he moved back home in 2018 to take care of his mother and sister.

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

The next job evaporated during the pandemic. He is now working for a management company, his fourth job in four years. But even with a reliable salary, he is barely able to support his family.

Food prices have tripled in recent weeks, forcing families to seek government handouts of rice and donations from nearby Buddhist temples and mosques. Madhushanka’s savings have run out.

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

Experts say past crises, such as Sri Lanka’s nearly 30-year-long civil war that ended in 2009 or the devastating 2004 tsunami, have not caused the extent of pain or suffering for people outside the affected areas.

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

Bhavani Fonseca, a senior researcher, said, “The crisis has really shocked the middle class – it has forced them into difficulties they had never been able to face before, such as not knowing how to get basic goods. whether they can get fuel even after spending hours in line.” Policy Choice Center in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

“In the past three decades, he has really suffered a setback like never before,” Fonseca said.

Sri Lanka’s middle class began to grow 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 growing higher than many of its neighbours.

Economist Chayu Damsinghe said, “The ambition was to own a house and car, to be able to send my kids to a good school, to eat out every few weeks and spend holidays here and there.” “But now it seems that the middle class has lost its dream,” he said.

“If the middle class is struggling like this, imagine how hard the more vulnerable are,” Fonseca said.

Protests have intensified since April, with demonstrators blaming President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government for policy blunders that slammed the economy and plunged the country 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, is banking on a bail-out 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 persist until 2024 as the war in Ukraine disrupts global supply chains, raising prices of some commodities.

Sri Lanka’s economic situation was aggravated last year by a ban on imported chemical fertilisers, which angered farmers and damaged crops. The ban was lifted after six months, but the damage was already done, leading to food shortages.

Government officials have been given three months off every Friday to save fuel and grow their own fruits and vegetables as food stocks are short. According to official figures, the inflation rate for food is 57%, and 70% of Sri Lankan households surveyed by UNICEF in May reported a reduction in food consumption.

On a recent afternoon, residents sweated in the glare of sunlight at a busy vegetable market in Colombo as they compared the prices of tomatoes and oranges to the markets they had previously visited.

Sriyani Kankanamge, 63, said she has stopped buying meat or fish and only buys certain types of vegetables.

“I am unhappy. Prices of every essential item like rice, sugar, milk, chicken, fish are rising. How can people eat?” he said bitterly.

Madushanka’s family has opted to skip three daily meals only for late breakfast and dinner.

On a recent Friday, his mother, Ambepitayage Indrani, was grinding coconuts and boiling a pot of water over a thin pile of firewood. When his gas cylinder became empty in May, the idea of ​​waiting in a queue without a guarantee of success seemed futile. The kitchen ceiling, which once shone white, is now covered with soot from cooking fires. An electric stove bought a few years ago has been sold.

Indrani has glaucoma in her left eye and is using eye drops once instead of twice a day as per her doctor’s advice. The cost of the drug has quadrupled.

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

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

When there is a three-hour daily power cut, Madhushanka sometimes visits the main protest site outside the President’s office.

Like many Sri Lankans he feels that the only way out may be the way out.

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

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