Sri Lanka’s crisis wreaks havoc on once-growing middle class – The Diplomat

Miraj Madushanka never thought he would need government rations to keep his family fed twice a day, but Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in history has changed his life and the lives of many others in the rising middle class.

Families who have never had to think twice about fuel or food are having a hard time managing three meals a day by cutting back on portions. Days are spent queuing to buy scarce fuel. The crisis has reversed years of progress towards the relatively comfortable lifestyle that South Asians have longed for.

An island nation of 22 million people, Sri Lanka is rapidly approaching bankruptcy after accumulating $51 billion in external debt. There is virtually no money to import goods such as gasoline, milk, cooking gas and toilet paper.

Before things went awry, Madushanka, a 27-year-old accountant, studied in Japan and hoped to work there. He returned home in 2018 after his father’s death to look after his mother and sister.

Madushanka graduated and found a job in tourism, but lost it due to the 2019 terrorist attacks that rocked the country and its economy.

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The next work evaporated during the pandemic. Now he works in a management company, this is his fourth job in four years. But even with a secure salary, he barely manages to support his family.

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

“Now that’s enough to survive – if there are months when we don’t get additional benefits from outside, we just need to somehow hold on,” he said.

Even past crises, such as Sri Lanka’s nearly 30-year-old civil war that ended in 2009 or the devastating 2004 tsunami, did not inflict such pain and suffering on those outside the affected areas, experts say.

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

“The crisis has really shaken the middle class – it has given them challenges they have never experienced before, like getting basic necessities, not knowing if they can get fuel despite spending hours in line,” he said. Bhavani Fonseca, Senior Fellow. Center for Political Alternatives in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

“They were really shaken up like never before in three decades,” Fonseca said.

Sri Lanka’s middle class began to grow in the 1970s as the country’s economy opened up to trade and investment. It has risen steadily since then, with Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP higher than that of many of its neighbours.

“Our goal was to have a house and a car, be able to send our kids to a good school, eat out every few weeks, and afford vacations here and there,” said economist Chayu Damsinghe. “But now it seems like the middle class has lost their dream,” he added.

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

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Protests have been raging since April, with demonstrators accusing President Gotabay Rajapaksa and his government of political miscalculations that torpedoed the economy and plunged the country into chaos. In May, a wave of violent protests forced Rajapaksa’s brother and later Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign. His successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is counting on a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund and help from friendly countries such as 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, causing the prices of some commodities to skyrocket.

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

Every Friday, government officials were given three months off to save on fuel and grow their own fruits and vegetables as food supplies run low. Food inflation is at 57 percent, according to official figures, and 70 percent of Sri Lankan households surveyed by UNICEF in May reported a decline in food consumption.

On a recent afternoon, residents filled a busy vegetable market in Colombo, sweating in the sun as they carefully compared the prices of tomatoes and oranges with those at markets they had previously visited.

Sriyani Kankanamge, 63, says she has stopped buying meat and fish and only buys a few types of vegetables. “I’m angry. The prices of every essential commodity are going up – rice, sugar, milk, chicken, fish. How can people eat?” she said bitterly.

Madushanka’s family decided to forego three meals a day in favor of brunch and dinner.

Last Friday, his mother Ambepityage Indrani was grinding a coconut and boiling water in a pot over a thin stack of firewood. When their gas tank ran out in May, the thought of standing in line with no guarantee of success seemed useless. The kitchen ceiling, once gleaming white, is now covered in soot from the kitchen fire. An electric stove bought a few years ago has been sold.

Indrani has glaucoma in her left eye and uses 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 earlier, she was preparing extra food to distribute to her neighbors.

The family’s radio and television have been off for weeks now, their scooter parked outside under a canopy. They barely use it anymore, preferring to walk or take the bus rather than stand in line for fuel.

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

Like many Sri Lankans, he believes 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 from time to time. I wanted to get married and start a family,” he said. “But I fear that this dream is no longer feasible, at least not in this country.”