This story is part of a series of illustrations that explore how the crisis of cost of living is affecting people around the world.
Colombo, Sri Lanka – Mohamed Razdeen’s four-wheeled yellow mini truck, locally known as the Tempo, stands on the side of a road in Colombo’s Petta market, one of the busiest and busiest shopping districts in the city. The rear of his vehicle opens on all three sides, doubling as a vending stall, from which he sells a mix of first- and second-hand goods.
He points to a large gray toolbox sitting between the spanner, the wires, and the car jack. “you see this?” he asks. “Previously, it was LKR5,000 or LKR6,000 ($14 or $17). Now? It’s LKR10,000 ($28). I got it months ago and it’s still not sold.” Previously he could sell up to three per week.
Sri Lanka has been facing severe economic crisis since March. Petrol and diesel are in limited supply, and fuel lines up to one kilometer long have become common in the capital. Inflation has affected consumer goods and food items alike. Experts blame a variety of factors: rising debt, declining tourism and foreign remittances, and political mismanagement.
Says Razdeen, “The situation in our country is very bad. “No measures are being taken to control inflation.” Like millions of others in the island nation, the 35-year-old’s life and business have been affected. “how to manage?” He asks, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt with an uncomfortable shrug, which has a cash bag at his waist. There are no easy answers.
Since he was a child, Razdeen has worked with his father, whom he calls “the Boss”. The 62-year-old sits nearby in a shirt-and-sarong, looking at the front desk, a pile of items including plugs, locks, screwdrivers and pliers.
The market is relatively busy, though nothing compared to before the crisis. Still, most of the rain has stopped, and people are running around, shopping for electronics, fruit, clothes, and other bric-a-brac. Both come here daily to sell their goods. But sales have been low for the past several months.
“Customers have no money, they are buying less,” says Rajbadin, who completed school but never went to university. As the eldest son of the family, he had to quickly enter the workforce to help others.
Food: ‘We have to think twice’
According to the World Food Programme, food inflation reached 80 percent in June, and at least six million Sri Lankans are food insecure. From salt to rice, Razdeen says the price of all staples has come down drastically. From diet to lifestyle changes, daily life has become a series of careful recalculations.
“Since the prices of vegetables have gone up, we are cooking them less,” he says. He no longer eats chicken every day. “Meat is expensive. If we take a day off from work, we can’t afford to eat chicken that day.” The days of barbecuing at home are also behind him. “Now we have to think twice.”
Razdeen no longer starts and ends the day with a glass of fresh milk as often as he used to. Because the cost of 750ml of fresh milk has risen from 220 to 490 Sri Lankan rupees ($0.61 to $1.36), he says he now drinks only 10 percent of what he used to. Although most other people get milk powder, Rajabudin doesn’t want any of that ersatz stuff. He grew up with ready access to the best milk, thanks to a relative who had a dairy farm, and he wouldn’t give it up entirely.
As a coffee drinker, he smiles when asked about tea, Sri Lanka’s number one export and the second most consumed beverage in the world. “When you add tea to milk, it doesn’t taste as good.”
Only what Razdeen ate has changed, it hasn’t either. LPG is scarcely supplied; Long queues of people sitting with gas cylinders have become common. In their home, all the cooking is done in an electric rice cooker – usually, as the name suggests, used for making rice. Now it is more than an all-purpose magic utensil which is used to cook various things. “Everyone is doing this,” he says with a laugh, “very often we make biryani. It is a one-time meal.”
Does he get hungry sometimes? “Somehow we manage, we try to control our appetite. how to eat where is the money? Business has slowed down, no?” he replies. Things like biscuits and chocolates now seem like luxury treats and have been taken off the shopping list.
Although he is not a huge sweet eater, his kids seem to have a sweet tooth that has had little opportunity to indulge recently. He points to the shop in a corner near the market entrance. “You see Bombay Sweets?” he asks. Inside, behind their glass panels, squares and diamonds of white, cream and green sweets sit neatly in metal trays. “Ask them, they know me,” he adds. “I used to be his favorite customer. I used to buy something from there every day. He bought laddoos, and a lot more, he laughs. Now these indulgences feel out of reach.
Black market fuel, high power cost
The struggle for fuel also continues daily. Rajbadin is facing the same challenges as his compatriots. “There is no proper infrastructure for fuel delivery,” he says. Fuel costs between 450 and 550 Sri Lankan rupees ($1.25 to $1.53) and is nearly impossible to buy unless you spend the day in line. But today, he is somewhat pleased as he has finally managed to refuel.
They have bought several liters of diesel from the thriving black market, a market that has been booming since demand and supply skewed in the country. A month ago, he paid 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees for a liter ($2.78), but now it has increased to 3,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($8.34). “We talked to so many people, and we barely got it,” he says.
His father was skeptical at first when he bought the fuel, not sure it was of good quality. He owns two vans including a tempo and a three-wheeler used for business. He last used a three-wheeler three months back. From time to time he buys a small amount of fuel for this vehicle, but not for actually running it. “We just use it to keep the engine running, to keep it active. We keep it in the same place,” he says.
His father often sleeps in the market because he cannot take his tempo back home every day; Meanwhile, Razdeen cycles back and forth 10 km (6 mi) each way.
Rajbadin has worked in the railways and textile sector, but he prefers to work with his father for now. They also have entrepreneurial ideas of their own, although there are few resources at the moment to realize them. “This is not my life,” he says. “I have big ideas and big plans.”
It starts raining and Razdeen rushes to pull the plastic wrap to protect his belongings. Then he figures out his electricity bill, tracing his finger through the ballooning numbers. This is up to 835 Sri Lankan Rupees ($2.32) for the previous month, which is higher than the normal 500 Sri Lankan Rupees ($1.39). Dues are also being deposited.
Even though there are frequent power cuts, lasting up to four hours a day, managing electricity usage is a challenge in itself. “We use the fan less frequently and turn off the fridge at night,” he says.
‘let us hope’
The crisis has also pushed Razdeen’s wife – by now a homemaker – into the workforce. “How to do otherwise? How to handle?” he asks. She now goes to work in other people’s homes.
Her son and two daughters have not been going to school for weeks. The government ordered the closure of schools in many areas during the crisis due to power cuts and a lack of fuel to transport children. “The kids are so sad that the school is closed,” he says.
The country is also facing acute shortage of medicines. Razaddin takes pills to control his diabetes, but this has recently become unregulated. “how to Buy?” he asks. He is neglecting his health due to lack of fuel, short supply of medicines in government hospitals and paucity of time.
But his trouble this year didn’t start with an economic crisis. COVID-19 was a terrible time too, with lockdowns and thin business. And the roots of their craze go even further back. In April 2019, armed men bombed a series of churches and hotels in and around Colombo. The Easter attacks, as they became known, killed 269 people. This was followed by a wave of Islamophobia, followed by some staunch Buddhist majority voices. “We faced a lot of problems. [The majority] Promoted and said don’t buy ours [Muslim community’s] Don’t buy food, our groceries, don’t come to our hotels,” recalls Razdeen. About 9.7 percent of the country’s population is Muslim and 70 percent of the majority is Buddhist.
What is left of the future of the country? “Dead,” says Razdeen. “But we hope for the best.”
He used to be fond of movies once, he shares, often goes to the cinema to watch movies, but now he has other responsibilities.
Thinking about the movies brings a smile to his face as he remembers a grim incident from long ago. In April, when the protest began in Colombo’s Galle Face Green, Rajabadin was in a queue with his yellow tricycle, a vehicle he had bought in 1987. A film crew member from an upcoming sports biopic saw it and contacted them. Can they use it for their shoot, he asked.
After this, Razdeen also got a small cameo in the film, playing the role of a soldier. He smiles as he shows off his military green hat, a prop from the set that he managed to take home. It was a rare and thrilling opportunity, perhaps not such an opportunity would have come, but for the peculiar circumstances of queuing for fuel. “God has given me this opportunity,” he smiles.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.