For two decades from 1983, as civil war raged in Sri Lanka, The Island was published without interruption. But on Friday, it announced that it was stopping its weekend print edition until further notice. Its Sinhala paper Divayina will also publish on a digital version on weekends.
“We regret to inform our readers that we have been compelled to suspend the publication of The Island print edition on Saturday until further notice in view of the newsprint shortage,” read a statement from Upali Newspapers Limited, the publisher of the titles.
The paper shortage on the island is so acute, the government has indefinitely postponed school examinations for classes 9, 10 and 11 because it does not have stocks on which to print question papers. Four-and-a-half million students have been impacted.
This is just one of the ways in which Sri Lanka’s residents have been stung by the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Over the past few months, long lines for fuel and cooking gas have become routine, as have extended power cuts and soaring prices of basic food items – when they are available.
“Even apples and oranges have become luxury items,” said Harin Amirthanathan, a musician from Colombo.
Already struggling to repay its international loans, Sri Lanka was tipped over the edge when the Covid-19 pandemic hobbled its tourism-dependent economy. Rising fuel prices as a consequence of the Ukraine invasion have made the situation even tighter.
Sri Lanka’s foreign debt of $51 billion has been described as “unsustainable” by the International Monetary Fund and many fear that the country may default on its debt obligations. With its foreign exchange reserves sinking, the staples of everyday life have become scarce since Sri Lanka relies on imports for essential commodities such as milk powder, medicine, foodstuffs and paper.
This has resulted in growing discontent against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government, which is seen as having mismanaged the situation. Already, there have been several protests against the government.
“People are frustrated and angry,” said Rasika Jayakody, a political analyst in Colombo. “They believe the government mismanaged the situation.”
No food on the table
Nishan de Mel, executive director of the think tank Verite Research in Colombo, said that two things are happening: an “increase in prices and increase in shortages”.
While overall inflation rose to 15.1% in February, food inflation was at 25.7%. The price of rice has jumped by more than 30% since last year, while the price of vegetables like tomatoes have risen five times.
With food so expensive, there have been news reports of people cutting down on meals and going hungry.
As is always the case in a crisis, the country’s marginalised have been disproportionately hurt. “The people who are most affected are the poor people and the daily-wage earners,” said economist Rehana Thowfeek.
Standing in queues also mean losing out on earnings. “You find them wasting their time waiting in queues buying essentials,” she said.
Said Amirthanathan, “We now see lots of people on the streets of Colombo asking for money, whereas this was not the case earlier.”
The value of the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by almost 50% in March, from around 200 Sri Lankan rupees to the dollar to 292 on March 26. The country’s central bank had on March 8 devalued the currency by 15%, a move that analysts said would help Sri Lanka attract more remittances from overseas citizens.
On March 9, it barred the import without a licence of 367 items, including meat, cream and cheese, to restrict foreign currency outflows.
Along with food, other essential items have also become scarce – the most important being fuel and cooking gas, which Sri Lanka imports from abroad.
With no money to pay for imports, fuel prices have increased sharply. Petrol prices have risen 71% from 177 Sri Lankan rupees to 303 Sri Lankan rupees (about 45 Indian rupees to 77 Indian rupees) between March and December.
As lines grew at petrol pumps, people had to wait for hours to get fuel. At least three elderly people died while waiting in the heat and one person was stabbed after an argument broke out about places in the queue.
To control this, the army was deployed at the fuel stations from March 22.
Since cooking gas is also in short supply, some have shifted to other sources. “Gas is largely unavailable, so people are cooking with kerosene and firewood,” Indrajit Samarajiva, a Sri Lankan writer told Scroll.in.
Thowfeek added, “Kerosene is a lot cheaper... But again you have to go to a fuel station to get kerosene.”
Some have even started using electric hot plates, resulting in a shortage of those machines. “The other day I went to buy a hot plate,” Amirthanathan said, “only to find that its price had increased from 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees [around 4,000 Indian rupees] to 30,000 Sri Lankan rupees [around 8,000 Indian rupees].”
This means that industrial operations and online classes have been disrupted.
However, some Sri Lankans Scroll.in spoke to said that power cuts were put selectively. Areas that had wealthy and influential living, did not see powercuts.
“Certain neighbourhoods, which have connected [powerful] people, it is known that these areas do not get power cuts,” said Nuwan Jayawardene, a university lecturer. “Apart from this, localities, where hospitals are located, have not seen power cuts, which is completely understandable.”
Anger against government
As frustration with the government grows, even its own supporters are turning against it.
According to a survey by Verite Research published on March 3, only 10% of the Sri Lankans approved of the government. This is surprising, given that Rajapaksa won 52% of the votes in the presidential election of 2019.
“Now people, who are waiting in queues are saying they are ashamed of themselves for being amongst the 69 lakh people who voted for the government,” Amirthanathan said.
Olivia Thomas, an attorney-at-law from Colombo said, “Within the past two months, every taxi driver I’ve spoken to has told me that he regrets voting this government in.”
People have also lost faith in the country’s economic prospects. The same survey said that people gave a score of -82.96 to the state of the economy and its trajectory, between a range of 100 to -100.
Leaving the country
As the crisis deepens, some Sri Lankans are thinking of leaving the country.
“I am in my 20s right now,” said Jayawardene, the university lecturer. “When I met my friends, the common thread was, what were we going to do next? The common answer is moving to a different country. But that choice is not easy. However, many middle-class citizens I know of are taking steps to move out of the country.”
For some who have left, things did not quite go as planned.
In the last week, 16 Sri Lankans fled the country as they could not feed their families and came to Tamil Nadu. But they were detained by the Indian Coast Guard.