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Sri Lanka: The stranded state

Print edition : Jun 06, 2022 T+T-

Sri Lanka: The stranded state

Motorised fishing boats in Pasikuda, stationed owing to a shortage of fuel, on May 6. That was the day Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared an Emergency, for the second time in little over a month.

Motorised fishing boats in Pasikuda, stationed owing to a shortage of fuel, on May 6. That was the day Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared an Emergency, for the second time in little over a month. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar

Sri Lanka has faced a series of misfortunes—the wrath of a 26-year-long civil war, a devastating tsunami, the Easter bombings of 2018, the spread of COVID-19, and now, the economic crisis.

I WAS in Sri Lanka, the island of serendipity, from May 2 to 13. It was an unplanned visit, and the idea was to visit five cities: Pasikuda, a beach town on the eastern coast; Polonnaruwa, an ancient city and the second oldest of Sri Lanka’s erstwhile kingdoms; Sigiriya, the famous rock fortress located in the northern Matale district; Dambulla, another ancient town in the central province; and Negombo, a major city on the island nation’s west coast, which has been in the news recently for the wave of anti-government violence it saw.

While I was in Dambulla, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned. In the days leading up to this, contrary to what I had expected from news reports, most of Sri Lanka was peaceful, and the Lankans were warm and welcoming.

Even as the country faced one of its worst phases of economic downturn and political instability, life went on, stoically.

Most places remained open to tourists even after emergency had been declared. Indians continued to get a 50 per cent discount in many museums. Tourism, a major revenue source for Sri Lanka, has received the worst blow in the ongoing crisis. It contributed 5.6 per cent to GDP in 2018, which dropped to 0.8 per cent in 2020 because of COVID-19.

With the pandemic showing signs of receding, the island was gearing up to receive tourists when this latest crisis hit. Hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops welcomed tourists like always, but this time, a little more desperately. People needed cash in hand to fight the monster of inflation. Despite this, during curfews, hostel and homestay owners would offer an extra meal free of cost. “You are our guest; there is no problem for you,” most of them said. At one hostel, the caretaker told me this was the last meal—his food stock was finished.

In Pasikuda, I met fishermen who could not go to sea because they had no fuel for their boats. Those who did go, could not buy oil to cook the fish. The traders who sold fish in the cities did not have ready cash to pay the fishermen.

The island has faced a series of misfortunes—the wrath of a 26-year-long civil war, a devastating tsunami, the Easter bombings of 2018, the spread of COVID-19, and now the economic crisis. There is massive unemployment. I met a software engineer who has had to quit four jobs. He works as a hostel caretaker, earning a third of what he did before, while the prices of commodities like milk have increased almost three times. Many of his classmates are daily wage workers who load and unload gunny bags. While leaving, I offered him a small tip. He refused it: “You are my friend, how can I take it from you.”

Everywhere I went, I met islanders facing hardships with a smile, but I could not miss the ominous despair on many faces.

Nipun Prabhakar is an independent photographer and architect based in Delhi and Bhopal.

The economic crisis deprived this bartender of a job. Now, he wants to leave the country he loves and settle elsewhere. He is seen here, idling on one of the boats in the famous Dutch canal in Negombo, on May 11. 
The economic crisis deprived this bartender of a job. Now, he wants to leave the country he loves and settle elsewhere. He is seen here, idling on one of the boats in the famous Dutch canal in Negombo, on May 11.  | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
Mosque Street in Negombo after a spell of rain, on May 12. That day, the government relaxed the nationwide curfew for two hours to allow people to stock up. 
Mosque Street in Negombo after a spell of rain, on May 12. That day, the government relaxed the nationwide curfew for two hours to allow people to stock up.  | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
Young people continue with their regular beach cricket, even as a curfew was announced in Negombo on May 11.
Young people continue with their regular beach cricket, even as a curfew was announced in Negombo on May 11. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
People are taking their money out of banks and investing in livestock and commodities. I visited this sheep pen with a friend who was buying goats as investment. He said that in the past few months, the Sri Lankan rupee had been devalued to such an extent that it made little sense to leave it in a bank.
People are taking their money out of banks and investing in livestock and commodities. I visited this sheep pen with a friend who was buying goats as investment. He said that in the past few months, the Sri Lankan rupee had been devalued to such an extent that it made little sense to leave it in a bank. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
Boats lie idle in the Dutch Canal of Negombo. Also known as Hamilton Canal, it is a popular tourist destination, known for its Venetian vibes. 
Boats lie idle in the Dutch Canal of Negombo. Also known as Hamilton Canal, it is a popular tourist destination, known for its Venetian vibes.  | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
The statue of a reclining Buddha, approximately 48 feet long, on Pidurangala Rock. A group of tourists, a rarity in Sri Lanka now, makes its way up to the summit to view Sigiriya Rock. 
The statue of a reclining Buddha, approximately 48 feet long, on Pidurangala Rock. A group of tourists, a rarity in Sri Lanka now, makes its way up to the summit to view Sigiriya Rock.  | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, adorns an empty bus in Dambulla.
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, adorns an empty bus in Dambulla. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
A fish market in Negombo on the morning of May 13, when the curfew was lifted from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Local people said there was hardly any catch that day, both because of a rough sea and because there was no fuel for the boats to venture out.
A fish market in Negombo on the morning of May 13, when the curfew was lifted from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Local people said there was hardly any catch that day, both because of a rough sea and because there was no fuel for the boats to venture out. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
Old fish goes cheap. The buyers are mostly local residents and hotel owners who are struggling to stay afloat with meagre means.
Old fish goes cheap. The buyers are mostly local residents and hotel owners who are struggling to stay afloat with meagre means. | Photo Credit: Nipun Prabhakar
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Fishing boats in Pasikuda, stationed owing to a shortage of fuel, on May 6. That was the day Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared an Emergency, for the second time in little over a month.

Sri Lanka: The stranded state

Sri Lanka has faced a series of misfortunes—the wrath of a 26-year-long civil war, a devastating tsunami, the Easter bombings of 2018, the spread of