Haggling to survive in Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown

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By Kanchana Kolagolla and Nabiya Vaffoor

When Ceylon Today entered Pettah market, one of the busiest locations in Colombo, we could sense in the air the battle to secure even an extra rupee. Pettah looked like a battlefield, with vendors trying to hawk their wares for few extra rupees and their customers trying to buy as much as possible and save those extra rupees amid Colombo’s infamous humid weather.  

“I don’t think anyone can resolve these problems.”

Amarasiri, a banana seller from Athurugiriya, while looking away with hopelessness in his eyes noted that he continues to do business in Pettah since he had no other alternative to earn bread and butter. 

“We have to spend Rs 1,500 on a three -wheeler to bring goods here from Peliyagoda and we can’t profit when we bring only seven bunches of bananas. This is the only job we can do. Therefore, we are working here for Rs 500-600 profit. Even in the festival season the number of customers is not increasing. We sold one kilo of banana for Rs 50 a few weeks ago and now we have to sell it for Rs 120. Now we have reduced the quantity that we usually bring to sell because people tend to buy 500g instead of 1kg as the price has been doubled. We can’t do anything else for the money we earn but only spend on food and transport. Even travelling by bus is hard now. This problem has been made worse and I don’t think anyone can resolve these problems,” lamented Amarasiri while claiming that for 40 years he has been working at Pettah market but he hasn’t been in such a situation.

“This year is not like the previous years”

Sampath, a t-shirt seller said since business has hit rockbottom it is very hard to earn even Rs 2,000 per day. 

“This year is not like the previous years. When it is New Year season this place used to be full of customers. Other years we could at least earn the money we invested but this year we invested Rs 500,000 and we lost half of our investment,” noted Sampath while showing us his remaining stock.

“We can’t purchase quality products under these circumstances.”

Amarapala, a wholesale dealer who usually buys dry fish stocks of 25-30 kg only bought 6kg because of the price hike. 

“Prices are up to the sky. I have reduced the stocks since I can’t afford it at this price and even if purchase them, I can’t sell for the current price because customers won’t buy them. The local dry fish products are cheaper than the imported one, but there is a scarcity of local dry fish products in the market because the local fishing community doesn’t fish due to the diesel shortage. We can’t purchase quality products under these circumstances,” noted Amarapala, while suggesting that the Government should immediately find a way to solve this crisis, where the vendors could buy and sell qualitative products for a convenient price. 

“Business is dull these days. It’s hard to survive with all the shortages”

Kumara, a groceries shop owner, noted that though the Government has failed to provide basic facilities such as gas, electricity and water, they haven’t stopped increasing the taxes of goods and services.

“Business is dull these days. It’s hard to survive with all the shortages, water and power cuts. The goods that I sell in my shop are mostly imported. Since the Government has increased import taxes I cannot sell these goods for the previous price. Although the prices of essentials have gone up, the income of the public remains the same. They don’t buy much. Even when buying essentials, they try to reduce the quantity as much as possible to save money. Because of this situation the profit has been so low lately.  I have been working in this field for 23 years but this is the first time we are experiencing such a situation,” noted Kumara. 

“We had cut down on hired help because we can’t pay them”

Krishnan claimed they are stuck between selling vegetables for a cheaper price while making loses or selling them up to the price and throwing the rest at the end of the day.

“Previously, when it’s New Year season people bought goods which we had to order extra stocks but now we have to throw our surplus most of the time. Without business we face difficulties paying rent and helpers, so we had cut down on hired help because we can’t pay them when we don’t have a profit,” added Krishnan.

“We buy old vegetables which are cheaper”

Sahan is a vegetable vendor who happened to buy old vegetables as the price of fresh produce is high.

“As we have to sell vegetables for less amount of money, we are not buying fresh ones, instead we buy old vegetables which are cheaper. We will not be able to continue this when considering the situation in the country. When price of vegetables goes up, we are the ones who get scolded by the public. Fresh vegetables are pricy than old ones. Now I am selling yesterday’s stock for lower prices,” noted Sahan. 

“We are speechless when we discuss prices”

Champa Niroshini who came shopping with her teenage daughter noted that customers are speechless at the prices. 

“We are speechless when we discuss prices. We are going to each and every place to try and see where we can buy goods at the lowest price. Even a rupee is valuable for us today. If this continues we will die of hunger. I don’t really feel this New Year season and if it’s worth even celebrating. Even as the prices climb, our salaries are not increasing. It’s very difficult to survive,” claimed Niroshini while admitting that she is eagerly waiting for the Government to change. 

“Govt seems not smart as they need to be”

Oliver, a UK citizen, who has been living in Sri Lanka for around three months, claimed that the price of goods has been continuously increasing during his time in the country.

“Cost of living has gone down for me here because I have been here for two months so when I first got here I could get Rs 270 for a Pound, now I can get Rs 394 from the airport. Right now I can get Rs 450. But I can see prices are rising and my things are getting more expensive. When I see my menu I see different prices have been stuck over old prices. Prices are always rising here. This is the economic situation you get when you keep printing money even though it won’t do anything. The Government seems not smart as they really need to be. They are trying to solve problems by creating new problems. I really don’t understand why they would impose curfew and block social media. I was in Negombo and I was supposed to go to Sigiriya but because public transport was cancelled, there was no way for me to get there. It’s quite scary how much it has changed since I first got here. I have been here more than 10 times since 2006. We can see many foreign influences especially Chinese to an extent, but these influences aren’t really benefitting the people who live here. Not many people have cars here so why would they need several highway projects. They try to be more westernised but I think they have to more focus on the endemic abilities of this country to create a stable economy. There should be a reason on what you are doing and why you are doing. The fuel crisis has made a situation that’s hard to live. When I first got here everything was cheap now everything has become more expensive,” noted Oliver.

“This is solely the Government’s fault”

The shopkeeper of a wholesale grain store Rajendran showed us the bills from stocks that were purchased three years ago to show how much prices have increased. 

“Three years ago, a kilo of dhal was only Rs 88, now it’s Rs 388 even in the wholesale shops. This is the situation of all other goods in the country; for three years they have increased prices by 200 per cent. This is solely the Government’s fault. They try to import everything that we can easily grow and produce in this country. Even our farmers cannot produce because of many wrong decisions this Government has taken such as the recent ban on chemical fertiliser,” he added. 

“We can’t blame the President for everything”

Padmini, a mother of two, claimed that vendors are taking advantage of the price hike. 

“We can’t blame the President for everything, even the vendors are taking advantage of this situation; they are selling their products for any price they want by removing labels. Government must put a price control on goods so that no one goes against it. In this hard time it increases the people’s suffering. People are protesting out there because the prices are increasing day -by-day. The only solution is to put a control price. I went to all the shops around and all of them had removed the labels. One shop sells gas for Rs 4,500 another one for 

Rs 5,000, and Rs 6,000. It should not be like that. There should be a person to listen to us; I don’t understand why the Government is silent. People are suffering out here,” she added.

Padmini said she is ashamed to protest against the Government because she once supported and voted for them and now she and her family regret their decision because the Government is silent while the public is suffering. 

The daily struggles of the general public doesn’t seem to end, while wandering through Pettah market, Ceylon Today figured that there are many like Padmini who regret voting for this Government. But what else can the general public do other than regret when they are the ones who elected their public representatives that do not either represent or least remember they are here to serve the one who elected them. How long will they continue with the escalating burdens of this country, three years or more? 

(Pix by Kelum Chamara)

Leaving with a heavy heart

Pami Ann Jones is a tourist from the UK who usually spends half a year in Sri Lanka, but this time she has decided to leave due to the prevailing gas, diesel shortages, water and power cuts.While emotionally explaining to Ceylon Today, the discomfort that she went through in her favourite country, Pami shed tears for the people who are suffering.  

“The current situation of Sri Lanka is really difficult for tourists to manage. The power cuts; it have been 13 hours a day. Couple of hours in the morning couple of hours in the afternoon and it is too much. All of my close friends are leaving and some have already left and they are saying how wonderful is to be away from all this mess. So it’s really very sad for me; it also makes me feel really down because I feel for the country and the people. Yes I am suffering with the power cuts same like everyone else. I think it is more difficult for the Westerners, particularly ones that are coming from cold countries and it is pushing tourists out of the country. I went to Unawatuna beach recently and there were about 15 people there who had been there for seven weeks. It was so quiet and I was really shocked to see difference in the places. It was completely a different place in seven weeks. So businesses are suffering and it’s heartbreaking. In regard to the gas shortage, we couldn’t cook for two weeks and stuck inside our residence since there was no diesel to travel in our own vehicle or to take public transport. I am sad to leave Sri Lanka because I absolutely love Sri Lanka and I would like to live here one day but unfortunately, I have to leave due to the current circumstances. Many people on Facebook groups are asking should they come to Sri Lanka and a lot of tour guides are writing back saying yes, but a lot of tourists who already here like me are saying ‘just be aware’ since it is going to be difficult. I have also noticed in the shops the lack of availability of essential stocks; I can manage but the local people? I have noticed that how the prices have gone up as well which is also sad. It’s really horrible to say a country and its people are suffering and they are also losing their tourism businesses”. 

Pami told Ceylon Today that she was planning to leave Sri Lanka soon and will only return once the situation improves.