Following months of food, fuel, and electricity shortages in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced last week to Parliament that Sri Lanka had become a completely “collapsed” economy and is now facing the threat of hitting “rock bottom”.
For ordinary Sri Lankans, the situation is becoming increasingly dire, as ordinary life is transformed into a struggle to meet basic needs.
Now, a worsening fuel situation has led to a decision to shut schools from Tuesday and only allow fuel supplies to services deemed essential – health, trains, and buses – until 10 July.
With little fuel available, people all over the island nation are struggling to meet basic needs.
“There are queues one to two miles long leading up to every fuel station,” Shashi Dhanatunge, a Sri Lankan-born British citizen, now working in the city of Colombo as an investment consultant, tells i.
“There are similar queues for LP gas [liquefied petroleum such as propane, used for cooking and heating] and regular protests blocking streets by naturally frustrated men, women and children.”
Last week, a 19-year-old male died in a fuel queue in Pandulagama, Anuradhapura. He had been waiting on his motorbike in a line that was blocking part of the road when another vehicle collided with the bike. It is the 12th death in Sri Lanka’s fuel queues.
It isn’t only transportation affected by the fuel crisis.
“Without gas, there are many families in urban areas unable to cook food,” says Moses Akash, a Sri Lankan native who currently helps to cook meals with community organisation Voice for Voiceless for more than 1,200 people each day. “People are desperate for food.”
Akash says it is families in urban areas struggling most as they do not have the option of cooking food outdoors with firewood. “One woman we know just ate jackfruit for three days because she couldn’t cook,” Akash says. “Others, even children, are just surviving with one or two meals a day because they don’t have gas to cook or electricity to keep food cool.”
Hasna, a 16-year-old student in Colombo, has been waiting hours in lines, hoping to get gas for her family. “Standing in the line for kerosene oil made me very sad,” Hasna told a worker from Save the Children, a charity working in Sri Lanka.
“We’ve never had to do something like that before, but now we have to go.” Save the Children is concerned that children are missing out on education, with school closures sparked by both Covid-19 and the current crisis. This is the fourth school closure of the year in Sri Lanka. The charity recently conducted a Rapid Needs Assessment showing children from two out of five households were not able to continue with their online learning as families can’t afford mobile data on their phones.
Pradeep, 14, who lives in the Colombo suburb of Mattakkuliya, told Save the Children last week: “When I don’t have school I study at home. We are collecting money to try to get a mobile phone because the only one we have is my father’s. When he goes to work, I miss school. I have no other way of joining online classes.”
“Closing schools not only locks children out of education but often also robs them of the only decent meal they get each day,” Ranjan Weththasinghe, Save the Children’s director of programmes living in Sri Lanka, tells i.
“We know that 50 per cent of families are really struggling to support their children’s education and some children are already dropping out of school and going hungry daily. ”
Without intervention for families in Sri Lanka, Save the Children workers predict a rise in child malnutrition, an increase in school dropouts, child labour, and worst of all, child deaths.
In order to emerge from the current economic crisis, immediate action needs to take place.
“We need a new road map with short, medium and long-term goals,” urges Dhanatunge.
“Unless a solid plan is in place, there is less hope of attracting favourable responses from organised funding agencies. Sri Lanka’s political and public establishments have lost the confidence of all those establishments due to poor monetary policies, politicising regulatory bodies and state-sponsored corruption.”