COLOMBO (AFP) – As Sri Lankans faint in day-long queues for fuel and swelter through stifling evening blackouts by candlelight, anger is mounting over the worst economic crisis in living memory.
A critical lack of foreign currency has left the island nation unable to pay for vital imports, leading to dire shortages in everything from life-saving medicines to cement.
Long lines for fuel that start forming before dawn are forums for public grievances, where neighbours complain bitterly about government mismanagement and fret over how to feed their families as food prices skyrocket.
“I’ve been standing here for the past five hours,” Sagayarani, a housewife, told AFP in Colombo while waiting for her share of kerosene, used to fire the cooking stoves of the capital’s poorer households.
She said she had seen three people faint already and was herself supposed to be in hospital for treatment, but with her husband and son at work she had no choice but to wait under the blistering morning sun.
“I haven’t eaten anything, I’m feeling very dizzy and it’s very hot, but what can we do? It’s a lot of hardship,” she said, declining to give her surname.
Trucks at the port are unable to cart food and building materials to other urban centres, or bring back tea from plantations dotted around Sri Lanka’s verdant inland hills.
Buses that normally transport day labourers across the capital sit idle, some hospitals have suspended routine surgeries, and student exams were postponed this month because schools ran out of paper.
“I’ve been living in Colombo for 60 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Vadivu, a domestic worker, told AFP.
“There’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to drink,” she added. “The politicians are living in luxury and we are begging on the streets.”
Many among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are no strangers to privation: throughout the global oil crisis of the 1970s, authorities issued ration books for essentials such as sugar.
But the government concedes the present economic calamity is the worst since the South Asian nation’s independence in 1948, and a popular local quip now is that the rationing system at least offered some certainty that goods would be available.
A series of misfortunes have pummelled the country – which emerged from decades of civil war only in 2009 – in recent years.