A daily wage laborer waits for work at a wholesale market in Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 26. Sri Lankans have endured months of shortages of food, fuel and other necessities due to the country's dwindling foreign exchange reserves and mounting debt. Photo: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawarden
Jason Anthony has been in a two-kilometre fuel queue for two days now. In the capital city of Colombo, in the crisis-hit South Asian nation of Sri Lanka, the 35-year-old sleeps in his tuktuk when he’s exhausted, or sits on the pavement with other drivers who have been there for several days too. When the fuel station closes for the day, he walks several kilometres back home, only to return the next day to queue up. He showed VICE World News his makeshift home by the road over a video call.
“I was forced to quit my job as a tourist guide in February when things got bad here and tourists stopped coming. I had to become a tuktuk driver,” Anthony said. “Now, the fuel is so scarce that I’ve not worked in the last month. I can barely make ends meet at home but I’m forced to spend my days at fuel stations.” In addition to a 2-kilometre queue for tuktuks, there are separate queues for cars and public buses. Many have been waiting for over five days, and the sight of people lining up for fuel for hours or days has come to symbolise a looming humanitarian crisis in the country of 22 million people, one that is worsening each day.
As Sri Lanka sinks deeper into debt and runs out of foreign exchange reserves, basic necessities like food and fuel are fast dwindling too. On Tuesday, the Sri Lankan government announced that there’s just enough fuel to run essential services like healthcare, trains and public buses for two weeks. The garment sector—the largest contributor to the country’s GDP and a crucial source of income for nearly three million formal and informal workers —only has enough fuel to last 10 days.
On Sunday, the government hiked fuel prices by over 22 percent, citing an indefinite delay in oil shipments due to a lack of forex. Last week, newly-appointed Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admitted at a parliament meeting that the country’s economy has hit rock bottom. “We are now facing a far more serious situation beyond mere shortages of fuel, gas, electricity and food,” he said. “Our economy has completely collapsed.” The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, owned by the government and the main supplier of fuel in the country, is in debt to the tune of $700 million. So far, the country has received over 400,000 metric tonnes of fuel consignments from India, along with $500 million in financial aid to buy fuel. By April, Sri Lanka had used up 60 percent of the $500 million credit line.
“As a result [of this fuel debt], no country or organisation in the world is willing to provide fuel to us. They are even reluctant to provide fuel for cash,” Wickremesinghe added in his parliament address. On Sunday, the government said it will send its ministers to Russia and Qatar to buy cheap oil on concessionary terms in the coming days. Citizens on the ground are feeling the pinch more than ever. Apart from the fuel crisis, people can’t afford staple food items like rice, milk, fruit and vegetables. On June 17, the government ordered its officials to work from home to save fuel and grow their own food in their backyards amid the country’s acute shortages. In hospitals, doctors say they’ve run out of life-saving drugs and medical equipment. Hundreds of desperate Sri Lankans have been caught illegally fleeing the country by sea, including to as far afield as Australia, to escape the crisis.
Earlier this month, a woman in Colombo threw her five-year-old son off a bridge into a river, and attempted to jump off as well but was saved by passersby. Police told the media her actions were motivated by her desperation at the economic crisis.
Wimal Jayasuriya, a martial arts teacher in Colombo who relies heavily on public transport, said his children can’t go to school anymore because buses are either out of fuel, or are too crowded to board. “We keep getting told that there’ll be fuel, but we’re tired of waiting everyday,” the 43-year-old told VICE World News. “I don’t have a permanent job and we live in a rented apartment. Everyday is a struggle for us to exist.”“The worst setback is on our children, who are getting deprived of not just food and nutrition, but also education now,” he addedSince March, at least 12 people have died in fuel lines, succumbing to exhaustion and illnesses as they endured Sri Lanka’s searing heat. Fuel stations are seeing bouts of violence despite increasing security presence to quell them.
Sri Lanka’s meltdown has become a cautionary tale for developing countries living through a global economic unwinding that has spread across the globe as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Sri Lanka has sunk into recession, mass protests have rocked the country for over 100 days. Protesters blame the Sri Lankan government for the economic collapse, ruled since 2019 by the powerful and corrupt president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Last week, Sri Lankan troops opened fire after protests over fuel turned violent. Four citizens and three soldiers were injured. Even before this crisis, more than 4 percent of Sri Lanka’s population—nearly 900,000 people—already lived below the national poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank. The country is seeing a record inflation rate of nearly 40 percent—among the worst in the world—as the price of food skyrockets and hundreds of thousands more are pushed into poverty as they lose their jobs. “Resources are either finished or they’re too expensive for the common man,” said tuktuk driver Anthony. “No wonder the anger and the protests are not going away.”Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.