Ask a hundred people what freedom means and you might get a hundred different answers. Despite the differences, the freedom to build one’s future is an integral part of it. However, the present is so uncertain in Sri Lanka today, that the future almost seems irrelevant. This is due to years of bad economic policy, corruption and misgovernance that have brewed the worst economic crisis the country has seen in over 70 years.
What started as a Balance of Payment crisis has led to shortages in fuel and essential commodities, power cuts and soaring inflation. While the pain of these shortages, power cuts and inflation are excruciating already, there is speculation that the crisis will evolve to encompass a debt crisis, a financial system crisis, a government crisis and – worst of all – a humanitarian crisis. While endangering the whole of Sri Lanka, these crises will undoubtedly hamper the aspirations of the youth.
Previously the coronavirus had increased Sri Lanka's unemployment rate from 4.5% to 5.2% between the 4th quarter of 2019 and 2020. This coupled with economic mismanagement and delayed policymaking by the current government has exacerbated the situation more. Inflation spiked to 17.5% in February which has resulted in significantly higher costs, especially for essential goods. This has affected the consumption patterns of Sri Lankans while also affecting the operations of businesses across all sectors. Even strategically important industries, like the apparel industry, that bring in billions of foreign reserves have been left reeling.
Due to prolonged power cuts, the daily operations of apparel factories have come to a halt abruptly. The fuel shortage didn't just make the generators redundant - it also affected the ability to transport goods and employees to and from factories, further increasing costs. According to reports, some managements had to pay a whopping 400% more just for fuel and generators this year compared to the last. Due to the lower working hours, workers are expected to earn a third less this month. This drop in earnings will be felt by the approximately 300,000 strong workforce of the sector – of whom a substantial majority are young women.
Young adults also find themselves in a vulnerable situation as clouds of uncertainty loom over their future. Students studying across the island have faced several disturbances during the past two academic years. First, the global pandemic had caused large-scale disruption to the continuation of structured in-school education for approximately 4.2 million students and 235,000 teachers. The closing of schools for just one day causes a loss of about 25 million learning hours and 1.4 million teaching hours. With the school year interrupted by multiple periods of school closure, access to and participation in quality learning has invariably decreased in Sri Lanka.
Distance learning modalities cannot be uniformly applied across the nation as children have varying levels of access to laptops, mobile phones, TV, radio and the broader infrastructure that supports these systems. The burden on the education system has increased further amidst the crisis as Colombo failed to secure essential school supplies, including printing paper, leaving millions of students unable to take part in term assessments. Additionally, long power cuts have meant that schools cannot operate efficiently, particularly those that do not have the resources to fund a generator. Even schools that have generators suffer as the country faces a severe fuel crisis.
This economic crisis has pushed the healthcare system also to the brink of collapse. Daily power cuts, a lack of resources and a shortage of several life-saving drugs due to the lack of foreign reserves, have resulted in a situation where the healthcare system cannot deliver care anymore. Surgeries are being rescheduled, patients are being sent back without medicines and young infants are in desperate need of Endotracheal (ET) tubes which currently aren’t available. Doctors across the island fear a health catastrophe may occur if relief doesn't arrive soon.
The ill-advised economic policies and corruption of the present regime are what sparked the destruction of the Sri Lankan economy that was seven decades in the making. Now, awakened citizens from all walks of life are protesting to bring about much-needed systematic development to the country. This is because they know that this is their – this is our only shot at creating change. And we will.