February 4, 2023

Before Sri Lanka’s economy collapsed, Nazir, 50, spent scorching hot days carrying carts full of rolls of cloth, piles of coconuts and sacks of garlic through the narrow streets of Colombo’s Pettah Market.

Now dressed in a black cap, T-shirt and gray pants, Nazir sits quietly in front of dozens of empty carts, listening to speeches on his cell phone. He turns up the volume and points to the screen:Aragala!”, referring to the popular uprising in Sri Lanka that ousted its president last week.

On a good day, Nazir made the equivalent of $8, about enough to feed his family of six, of which he is the breadwinner. “Now the company is dead,” he said. If he doesn’t get a job today, he’ll go home with less than a dollar in his pocket.

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse has been blamed on former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who flew to Singapore after initially fleeing the country on a military plane to the Maldives when a wave of protests rocked the island.

Protesters were furious with the president for borrowing heavily to build China-backed projects and his eccentric policy making, including a ban on fertilizer imports.

The erratic economic management was exacerbated by a decline in tourism revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which left Sri Lanka in default and its currency plummet.

Vehicles wait in a long line to refuel at a gas station in Colombo
Sri Lanka, which has run out of foreign currency, has faced severe fuel shortages, leading to miles of queues for petrol © Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Sri Lanka’s mountain of debt stands at $51 billion, slightly more than half of which is due to bilateral and multilateral lenders, including China.

The economic impact has been devastating. “My family skips meals,” Nazir said. “During dinner we share pieces of bread with coconut sambal. I use firewood for cooking because there is no fuel and no kerosene.”

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Stories like Nazir’s echo throughout Pettah Market, which used to be a teeming maze of clothing boutiques and stalls selling everything from the latest electronics and dish soap to spices and coffee.

But the half-empty streets surrounding the country’s main market, right behind Colombo’s harbour, are indicative of a failing Sri Lanka, ravaged by rising prices, rising unemployment, poverty and hunger.

With foreign exchange reserves depleted, the country of 22 million people has no money to import fuel, leading to miles of queues at gas stations. In fact, the fuel shortage has left many people unemployed and forced the schools, offices and businesses in the country to close.

Across the market, MT Niyas, 55, is drinking his second coffee of the day at Lucky Cool Spot, a cafe where workers are served sandwiches, hot drinks and cigarettes sold separately.

His sunburnt body covered from head to toe in flour, Niyas said his daily wage for carrying bags on his back had more than halved to SLR’s 2,500 ($7) when trucks stopped coming, while bus fares doubled to 70 rupees.

“I’ve been working here since 1981 and this is the worst ever,” Niyas says. “It’s good that the old president is gone. All we ask of whoever takes his place is that we can eat three full meals a day. It can’t be that hard!”

MT Niyas
MT Niyas: ‘All we ask . . . is that we can eat three full meals a day’ © Antoni Slodkowski/FT

Nisham, the 26-year-old bearded owner, steps in as he clears tables for new customers, returns change and pours fresh tea: “Employees came by maybe 10 times in a long day for a quick tea or chat. Now they come maybe twice a day.”

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He rattles off the staggering price increases of the last quarter: the price of milk powder has tripled to 3,000 SLR per kg, while sugar and even tea, which Sri Lanka exports worldwide, has more than doubled.

Nisham openly speaks of his hatred for the Rajapaksa family, which dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades. But there’s also a tinge of wounded pride that echoes in many other conversations. “We have a lot of natural resources in our beautiful country: tea, rubber, coffee, gems,” he said. “We should be able to do better than this.”

He and his fellow retailers complained that shadow brokers had stepped in to fill the void after banks stopped lending money. A 65-year-old woman named Aruna, who sells curry leaves, said she borrowed 10,000 SLRs to keep her business afloat. But she has to pay back 1000 SLRs per day for 12 days.

Day laborers like those at Lucky Cool Spot are among the hardest hit, but are no exception. The World Food Program said 3 million people are receiving emergency humanitarian aid after food inflation hit 80 percent last month. Nearly 90 percent of all households skip meals or skimp on food to make them last longer, the organization added.

Afzal Fasehudeen, a construction engineer who came to Pettah to stock leeks and carrots, had no doubts as to who was responsible for the crisis.

“This whole downfall was caused by massive mismanagement and a total lack of proper planning. The Rajapaksas started building projects right, left and center – that’s ridiculous,” Fasehudeen said.

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As the construction boom stalled, Fasehudeen said he and many of his friends who had graduated from college two years ago were planning to leave the country.

“My company could go bankrupt soon. I don’t want to leave, but if nothing changes in the coming months, I’ll try to find a job in one of the Gulf states,” Fasehudeen said.

“Everything goes up, but not the income. People are angry.”