SRI LANKA/INDIA: Under the blazing sun, the 44-year-old Tamil labourer tended to his rented piece of groundnut field in Sri Lanka, pounding the ground with a spade in a daily struggle to beat inflation, which has put many necessities out of reach.
“I am in more trouble than a daily wage labourer,” said Singaram Soosaiyamutthu, who is walking on his hands after an air strike in 2009 took both his legs and injured his left arm.
It was during the final stages of the 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Today’s economic crisis is the second blow to the northern coastal district of Soosaiyamutthu Mullaitivu after the predominantly Tamil population was ravaged by the war’s final offensive.
Many residents work as day labourers to get by, he said, but he can’t. “If I go to being a labourer, no one will hire me, and there’s no way we’re going to work like that, right?” he asked.
He worked as a fisherman before the economic crisis, Sri Lanka’s worst in seven decades, dried up fuel supplies and forced him to turn to peanut farming instead to earn money.
“While we have to control our hunger, we can’t tell our children, ‘Look, boy, this is all there is to eat, now go to sleep,’ can we?” he said.
His family is among 6.2 million Sri Lankans at risk of food insecurity, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, as food inflation hit 93.7% last month.
Sri Lanka’s financial crisis is a result of economic mismanagement and the coronavirus pandemic, which has destroyed its tourism sector, a key source of income.
The population of 22 million has struggled for months with power outages, rampant inflation, a falling rupee and a lack of foreign reserves, making it difficult to pay for imports of food, fuel and medicine.
Mullaitivu is Sri Lanka’s second poorest district, with 58% of households living in poverty, a Save the Children survey showed in June, and has the highest number of those who say they have lost all income due to the crisis, about a quarter.
Nationally, 31% of adult respondents said that, like Soosaiyamutthu, they restrict food intake to feed their children.
“With this economic crisis, they are being pushed from bad to worse,” said Soma Somanathan, founder of Tears of Vanni, a charity that helps people in the region.
“They are being pushed back to where they were right after the war,” added Somanathan, who is based in Sydney.
Sentheepan Kalachelvi, affected by shelling after being displaced during the final months of the war, said the adults in her family sometimes went hungry to ensure the children had enough to eat, and that she could only shower every other day due to a lack of fuel.
“The poor are still pushed down here in society,” said the 38-year-old housewife, who has a prosthetic replacement for her left leg and right arm.
Widowed and unable to work due to her disability, Kalachelvi relies on her mother’s work as a day labourer and receives 5,000 rupees ($14) a month from Tears of Vanni.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated in 2010 that the final stages of the civil war internally displaced about 300,000 Tamils like the Kalachelvi from their homes.
Sri Lanka is expanding welfare efforts that cover 4 million households to include those hardest hit by the crisis, said Neil Hapuhinne, secretary of the Ministry of Social Empowerment, and plans to provide direct monthly cash transfers to an additional 600,000 people.
“Those who deserve it the most will be identified and helped,” Hapuhinne added after 51.3 billion rupiahs ($146 million) was paid out to 3.2 million households this year.
A $200 million loan from the Asian Development Bank will also ease the food crisis, while the government has turned to the World Bank and UN agencies.
At dusk in Mullaitivu, Soosaiyamutthu dropped his spade at the end of the day. It will be two months before he can gauge the success of the peanut harvest.
“If prices had gone down, we wouldn’t have worried so much,” he said. “Now it’s a problem to be even 10% fine. That’s how expensive things are.”