Sri Lanka on the brink of starvation

Hunger driving a people famed for hospitality into begging, crime and suicide



By Qadijah Irshad in Colombo

Published: Fri 8 Jul 2022, 4:21 PM

Last updated: Sun 10 Jul 2022, 2:24 PM

Swarna Premarathne stands tentatively at a traffic light in the middle of Colombo city. She is steeped in darkness at 10pm with the streetlights switched off. This is one of the busiest main roads in the capital but has been unusually quiet the past two weeks as Sri Lanka faces its worst power and fuel crisis yet. Swarna, her face half-covered with a shawl, approaches my car, the only one that stops at the red light, and stands at my window. She doesn’t look like a beggar. She looks embarrassed, scared and hungry.

It turns out that Swarna, a housewife with three children, has never begged on the streets before this night. Today she is teetering on the brink of starvation.

“I’m here out of no choice. I haven’t even dreamt of begging on the streets. We are from a good family. But I’m pregnant, my children are hungry, and they haven’t eaten a meal in two days,” she says in a hoarse whisper.

Swarna worked as a cook in a restaurant. She has been out of work since it shut down along with hundreds of eateries in Colombo due to a gas shortage and mounting food costs in Sri Lanka. Her husband Kumar is a trishaw driver, also unemployed.

Swarna is not the only one in this predicament, doing what they never thought they would have to do. Thanks to a public debt crisis, exacerbated first by the toll of the pandemic in the tourist-reliant haven, Sri Lanka has cascaded into an omnishambles fuelled by corruption and mismanagement. Major blunders in policy decisions by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, including tax revisions and a complete ban on imported fertilisers last year, have resulted in severe shortages. Food, fuel, cooking gas, medicines, cash and other essential commodities have been scarce since the government ran out of foreign reserves for imports earlier this year.

Mounting public anger and protests brought down the government, ousting prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. On Tuesday, the president was forced to leave parliament, with opposition members hooting and displaying placards saying, “Go Home Gota.” But fears continue to grow over food insecurity, with Sri Lanka defaulting on its debt in May for the first time in its history as an independent nation.

While the island, headed by the newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was hoping for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the 10 days of negotiations between the two parties concluded last week with no resolution. “In the past, we have held discussions as a developing country,” Wickremesinghe told the media, “but we are now participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt nation”.

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown has taken a severe toll on the agriculture sector too. Farmers are abandoning cultivation, which could plunge the country into starvation. Rice production in the last harvest season plummeted to 50 per cent. Seed and fertilizer scarcities could shrink crop yields by as much as 60 per cent this year, according to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera.

A recent UN World Food Programme report identified that more than 80 per cent of the 22 million islanders have reduced their number of meals per day, and are opting for cheaper, less nutritious food, “which fuels the risk of higher rates of malnutrition”.

This means that families who used to have three meals a day are now having two, while those who had already cut down to two meals to bear the brunt of the economic crisis are now eating just one.

The hunger is driving a nation of people famed for their hospitality and smiles towards anger, crime and suicide.

Three weeks ago, Varuni Dilhani, a 33-year-old former garment factory worker, tried taking her own life because she couldn’t feed her children aged four, five and nine. “We had come down to one meal a day, the children were always crying and hungry, it just broke her,” said her husband WA Anura, a severe diabetic patient.

“We both lost our jobs and have had no source of income for months now. We moved out of Colombo, sold the little gold jewellery we had, and then there was simply nothing left,” he says. “It’s not her fault. You need to be in our situation to understand.”

But now, it is not only the poor struggling to survive in Sri Lanka — a country that is slowly but surely sliding into poverty and hunger.

Gayan Ratnayake, a father of two, has spent the last four days in a fuel queue while his family goes hungry. “Four days have become the average time spent at a fuel queue now,” said Ratnayake, an Uber driver, who made what he says was “a comfortable living” before the crisis. “We have no gas, no power most of the time, and right now no food at home. If I don’t pump enough petrol and start work again, we stay hungry. My family doesn’t have anything to eat while I’m in this queue.”

While thousands of Sri Lankans are losing their livelihoods every day, food prices keep soaring in the heavily import-reliant nation. Escalating inflation, farmers abandoning cultivation, and ill-fated government policy decisions, coupled now with the unavailability of fuel to transport crops, have inflated food prices by more than 300 per cent. A kilogram of rice that cost Rs80 six months ago is now Rs280, an egg that cost Rs17 is now Rs56. Several essential food items such as milk powder are either unaffordable or unavailable to the masses.

Fear of hunger is also driving Sri Lankans out of the country. Families with children have started braving the perilous illegal journey to Australia in their own boats. During the country’s prolonged three-decade conflict against the Tamil Tigers that ended in 2009, thousands of people sought asylum out of fear. This time their plea is hunger.

The lack of food and poverty is causing another major issue — malnutrition — especially amongst children and pregnant women.

A spokesperson for Unicef Sri Lanka, Bismarck Swangin, called the economic crisis of Sri Lanka “a children’s crisis”.

“Sri Lanka was already the seventh-worst malnourished country in the world and the second in the region, and with the current crisis this is just getting worse,” Swangin recently told ABC Australia.

According to Unicef, 7 out of 10 families are cutting down their food intake to mitigate the crisis and 1.7 million children in Sri Lanka are at risk of dying from malnutrition.

Unicef recently launched an appeal for $25 million to provide humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka, where at least 17 per cent of children are currently suffering from chronic wasting - a disease that carries the highest risk of death. The crisis, Swangin said, “is really pushing families to their limits.”

Two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan government introduced a four-day working week for government employees in a desperate attempt to encourage people to grow crops in their backyards to fight the food shortage, while shutting down schools again due to the unavailability of fuel. The spiralling food cost and the closure of schools means that children who were receiving free meals at schools (an incentive for most Sri Lankan children to attend school) are now going hungry.

“We had an allocation of Rs28 (Dh0.28) per meal for a child before the crisis, and now the same food costs Rs100 (Dh1), said Aswath Khan, principal of Musalpitiya Muslim Kaishka Vidyalaya, a school that feeds 300 primary students.

Most of the children in the school, that is nestled close to the formerly vibrant tourist destination Kalpitiya in Northwestern Sri Lanka, come from poverty-stricken families with single parents who have no fixed income. “Our children come to school looking forward to that one meal of chickpeas or rice. They depend on that one meal. But not anymore,” said Khan.

“We have been managing with well-wishers all these days, but now we just can’t afford to feed them. We are asking for appeals from the villagers, but times are bad for everyone. I’m not sure what we will do when school re-opens,” said the headmaster.

Another schoolteacher in the area told Khaleej Times teachers in her school have stopped eating their mid-day snack. “The children don’t eat anymore. They just lay their heads down on the table and sleep during the interval. When we ask, they haven’t had anything to eat since lunch the previous day. They are having only one meal a day. How can we eat then?” said Rifka Ilyas. “The parents can’t afford to buy them books. Most of the children use one notebook for several subjects, but right now we are not even worried about that. They have to eat and live first before they can study, don’t they?”

ALSO READ:

The Colombo state-run paediatric hospital, the Lady Ridgeway, recorded that 20 per cent of the children admitted in the recent past suffer from severe malnutrition, with malnutrition amongst pregnant mothers increasing the mortality rate of infants. The World Food Programme (WFP) launched a cash-and-voucher assistance to three million of the most vulnerable people who can no longer meet their food needs, concentrating on pregnant mothers. However, this covers just a fraction of the hungry in Sri Lanka.

“It’s not enough,” said Pushpika Dharmasena, a midwife who visits the lower-income group of pregnant women in Colombo. “We used to advise pregnant mothers on what to eat, and now we just tell them, 'Eat whatever you can. Just try to get some food. Any food, even if you have to beg, if you want yourself and your baby to live.'”

Quotes:

“I’m here out of no choice. I haven’t even dreamt of begging on the streets. We are from a good family. But I’m pregnant, my children are hungry, and they haven’t eaten a meal in two days.”

— A housewife

“Our children come to school looking forward to that one meal of chickpeas or rice. They depend on that one meal. But not anymore.”

— Aswath Khan, principal of Musalpitiya Muslim Kaishka Vidyalaya

“The parents can’t afford to buy them books. Most of the children use one notebook for several subjects, but right now we are not even worried about that. They have to eat and live first before they can study, don’t they?”

— A schoolteacher


More news from Sri Lanka Crisis