How Sri Lankans are adapting their lives to survive the crisis

It’s not all bleak news for the country as people learn to survive by cooking food in terracotta stoves, sharing community meals and cycling to work.
Community Meal Share
Community Meal Share

What is it like living through Sri Lanka’s economic crisis? To answer that question, it’s perhaps easiest to begin with food. In our upper-middle-class household, the change was gradual, at least at first. Slowly but surely, we began to substitute with cheaper brands, then to buy less. We cut down on our protein intake—less chicken and fish, more eggs. We cut down one vegetable curry. And each week, the prices kept rising.

In July, inflation hit a record high of over 54%, while food inflation rose to 81%. Prices of staples like dal, green chillies and garlic went up north. This was partly because Sri Lanka is a net importer, including for many food items. In some instances, imports (potatoes being an example) have consistently been cheaper than local variants, due to difficulties in scaling up production.

A ban on chemical fertiliser imposed virtually overnight by former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also severely impacted local harvests, with farmers given no guidance and little support on transitioning to organic food. In a situation report released on July 6, the World Food Programme said that 6.3 million people in Sri Lanka (around 3 in every 10 households) are food insecure, while 6.7 million people are not consuming acceptable food.

The urban poor are particularly vulnerable, due to a lack of space to grow their own food. Unfortunately, inflation is expected to get worse. The Central Bank governor has already said that inflation could peak at around 70% over the next two months, while a nonchalant Ranil Wickremesinghe (who was Prime Minister at the time), said there would likely be food shortages in August.

In response to this, citizens stepped in. Nadeeka Jayasinghe from the Community Meal Share collective says they have provided over 35,000 meals to communities since March, and 12,000 meals per month to schools in Colombo, Badulla and Jaffna, plus weekly meals to communities in Kinniya, Trincomalee on the Eastern coast. Jayasinghe says an increased “desperation” for food has often led to arguments breaking out during their meal distribution drives.

“In many communities we have been told that many people are eating one meal a day, not necessarily one nutritious meal a day,” Jayasinghe told me.

Behind the crisis, a combination of factors

Of course, it’s not just about food. The crisis was caused by a complex combination of factors—economic mismanagement and bad policies, COVID-19 and the war on Ukraine. In May 2022, Sri Lanka announced it was defaulting on its debt for the first time, making it hard to borrow money in international markets. The result is a shortage of foreign currency, which in turn has meant a shortage of everything else including fuel, medicine and food items.

Navigating this means being open to adapting to numerous cascading crises. For instance, two and a half months ago, we finished our supplies of LPG gas. What would have once been a mundane errand became immensely complicated due to a nationwide shortage. In the absence of alternatives, we started cooking our curries in the rice cooker. We were also gifted a terracotta stove, which we lit using coconut husks, twigs, and bits of scrap cloth, soaked in oil. (It is now the primary appliance we use for cooking, even though we finally were able to refill our gas cylinders over the weekend). On my Instagram feed, I could see that we weren’t the only ones who made the switch. Some acquaintances were also selling them, with the cheapest version costing Rs 5,500 and more sophisticated ones costing as much as Rs 14,000. Over the past two decades, there has been a steadily growing demand for LPG especially in urban households —now, we are seeing a reversal thanks to the crisis. Those who could afford it also bought induction cookers, which are more expensive, but more electricity-efficient (these were selling for between Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000).

Adapting to survive

‘Adapting is easier when you have access to money and space. Many families living in lower-income neighbourhoods in Colombo simply do not have the space to safely use firewood stoves, as Jayasinghe from Community Meal Share notes. Opting for electrical devices is not an option for many due to concerns around higher electricity bills. This has led to many families relying on community kitchens to tide them over. Other families were forced to stand in queues. In my neighbourhood, residents have come together to organise, coordinating via WhatsApp and SMS and taking shifts to watch over the chained together cylinders while others go home to rest, ready to rush back at a moment’s notice when the truck comes.

Meanwhile, outside Colombo, there are parts of the country which have long had to adapt to survive. Those living in the North and East of the country recall embargoes on fuel, medicine and fuel which peaked in the 1990s – as Usha, a Kilinochchi resident pointed out to TNM, people living in these areas have long known how to make food stretch for weeks. I recall travelling to Batticaloa (on the East coast of Sri Lanka) in the aftermath of heavy flooding in 2011, with people I interviewed telling me how they had been living off nothing but potatoes for weeks, as government relief had yet to reach them.

As the daily power-cuts grew longer in March and April, people in Colombo also had to shift their ways of working. Many companies shifted back to working in office for the first time since the pandemic, since the power-cuts were unevenly implemented, with urban Colombo and areas near the Parliament, President's house and MPs' complex largely being spared. Some then had to shift back to working from home when there was no more petrol and mile-long snaking queues built up outside petrol sheds. For the two-thirds of people employed in the informal economy, there was no option of working from home in the first place – nor was there an option for gig workers at companies like Uber and PickMe for that matter – as with COVID-19, the economic crisis has only exacerbated existing inequalities.

Initiatives looking to support the most affected, like Community Meal Share, also faced challenges, with transport becoming increasingly costly. Jayasinghe says the collective had to scale back meal drives in Kandy, Batticaloa, Kalutara, Nuwara Eliya and Mannar as her volunteers in those areas were struggling to find transport, though Jayasinghe says with pride that they never had to cancel a single meal drive thanks to people stepping forward to help.

At the peak of the fuel shortage, it can take four days to reach the front of the petrol queues. The stress of waiting, particularly for those who have to commute regularly, can be intense (petrol is currently rationed based on vehicle type—while most cars can pump as much as Rs 7,000, motorbikes are only allowed to pump Rs 1,500 worth of fuel and three wheelers Rs 2,000.

People died waiting in queues

Queues now take up much of the road as there are separate lanes for bikes, three-wheelers and other vehicles. A total of 16 people have died waiting in queues, most of them men. One of the youngest was a 19 year-old who died after being hit by a tipper as he waited in line. The oldest was an 84-year-old. The cause of death for most has been cardiac arrest, which led to doctors creating awareness on first aid information for the benefit of others waiting in the queue. It is also a common sight to see people pushing their vehicles once they run out of petrol, as the line inches forward.

Many of Sri Lanka’s development projects, post-war, included highways and widened roads. Less funds were invested in upgrading public transport – leading to most people aiming to purchase their own vehicles or travel by three-wheeler once they could afford it. Even pre-COVID, this led to traffic, particularly during peak working hours. In light of the petrol shortages, sustainable and comfortable public transportation has become a topic of national conversation – buses being even more heavily crowded now, which simultaneously leaves commuters vulnerable to COVID-19. Three-wheelers are much more scarce and now charge high prices in order to recoup the cost of staying in queues (The cost of travelling to Galle Face Green from my home via Uber or PickMe, a local ride hailing app, is anywhere between Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,800 – before, it would have cost me just Rs 300.) While people on Twitter complain about three-wheeler drivers siphoning petrol to sell on the black market, what goes unacknowledged is that even at inflated prices, trying to recoup the time lost in queues through hires alone is already unsustainable. Many people have bought bicycles, which have also skyrocketed in price (a decent bicycle can now cost up to Rs 1,00,000, a cheaper one can take you back by at least Rs 50,000). Those who commuted to work this way have found it less than ideal, arriving at work exhausted after having to swerve through busy streets not designed for biking. Trying to secure bicycles from being stolen is also a challenge. Every doctors’ visit now becomes fraught with uncertainty—both for staff and patients.

Again, the North and East have long had to learn to adapt to this reality. For instance, documentary film-maker Kannan Arunasalam, has explored the ingenuity of taxi drivers from the region during food, fuel and medicine embargoes imposed by the government in the 1990s in the film Kerosene.

A shaky, uncertain future but not everything is bleak

Amidst all these crises, the government has been deliberately obtuse about solutions, asking public servants to work from home despite power-cuts, asking people not to queue and then often issuing contradictory announcements on when shipments are arriving. The rollout of a QR-code generating app along with a number plate system to try to cut down on petrol queues has only had limited impact so far, being not accessible to everyone and unevenly implemented in petrol sheds. (A similar app rolled out by the Vavuniya District Secretariat to monitor fuel usage and prevent hoarding, has had some success).

This has led to eroding trust in the government, with the community often leaning on each other or trying to build their own solutions. In the end, surviving requires thinking ahead and planning for shortages before they happen—those who are quick to adapt, too, will find ways to endure. However, people like the elderly and disabled, will find it harder to adapt than others. Sri Lanka’s uneven roads and pavements have long not been disability-friendly, and those who find it hard to take public transport, including the elderly, often find themselves stranded as a consequence.

It’s not all bleak news. For me, there have been moments of joy, too, in seeing how Sri Lankans have come together to help each other. Apart from Community Meal Share, there are many other similar initiatives springing up and ready to provide food and other essentials. As my sister can attest after spending 28 hours in a queue, people try to look out for each other, sharing snacks, food and emotional support. While international media coverage has focused on images of violence and rioting, there have also been creative and peaceful modes of protest used by some groups – such as art, folk music and dance, or even banging pots and pans to express frustration with rising prices –  which haven’t made the news as prominently. Even in the direst circumstances, Sri Lankans express wry humour in memes and cartoons. This, apart from anything, is why I’ve chosen to stay even as more and more people line up in front of the passport office to leave.

At the same time, the future feels shaky and uncertain. Many placards held up at the protests around the economic crisis speak about dreams and futures being ruined. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has already violently cracked down on protesters and journalists within 24 hours of taking office. In order to achieve the political stability that the IMF wants to negotiate an agreement, he will have to work with a Cabinet dominated by those who were once his political adversaries. And the details of the IMF agreement are likely to impact vulnerable citizens. In the end, the economic crisis is also a political crisis—every election, more or less the same faces vie for the coveted Presidential position (in the recent secret ballot, the youngest Presidential candidate was 53 years old). This has now become the focus of conversations around the country but the question, as ever, remains as to whether the public will remember this once the lights come back on, petrol tanks are filled and it’s time to vote again.

(Click here if you would like to donate to Community Meal Share).

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