Living expenses: ‘How to manage?’ Laments Sri Lankan Market Vendor – Al Jazeera English | Region & Cash

This story is part of a series of portraits exploring how the cost of living crisis is affecting people around the world.

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Mohamed Rajabdeen’s four-wheeled yellow mini truck, popularly known as the Tempo, sits on a street corner in Colombo’s Pettah Market, one of the city’s busiest shopping districts. The back of his vehicle opens on all three sides and also serves as a sales stand where he sells a mixture of first and second-hand goods.

He points to a large gray tool box standing among wrenches, wires, and jacks. “You see that?” he asks. “It used to be LKR 5,000 or LKR 6,000 ($14 or $17). Now? It’s LKR10,000 ($28). I got it months ago and it’s still unsold.” He used to be able to sell up to three a week.

Sri Lanka has been reeling from a severe economic crisis since March. Gasoline and diesel supplies are limited, and in the capital, long queues for fuel are commonplace. Inflation has hit consumer goods and food alike. Experts blame a variety of factors: rising debt, a decline in tourism and foreign remittances, and political mismanagement.

“The situation in our country is very bad,” says Rajabdeen. “No action is being taken to control inflation.” Like millions of others in the island nation, the 35-year-old’s life and business have taken a hit. “How to manage?” he asks with a desolate shrug, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt with a bag of cash slung around his waist. There are no easy answers.

Ever since he was a child, Rajabdeen has occasionally worked for his father, whom he calls “the boss”. The elderly man, 62, in a shirt and sarong, sits nearby and looks at the table in front of it, which is also laden with goods, including dowels, locks, screwdrivers and pliers.

The market is relatively busy but nothing compared to what it was before the crisis. Still, the rain has mostly stopped and people are scurrying about buying electronics, fruit, clothes and other knick-knacks. The duo come here almost every day to offer their wares. But sales have been on the downside for the past few months.

“Customers have no money, they buy less,” says Rajabdeen, who finished school but never went to college. As the eldest son in the family, he had to quickly join the workforce to support the others.

Food: “We have to think twice”

Food inflation hit 80 percent in June and at least six million Sri Lankans are food insecure, according to the World Food Programme. From salt to rice, Rajabdeen says all staple foods have become unaffordable. Daily life has become a series of careful recalibrations, from diet to lifestyle changes.

“Since vegetable prices have gone up, we cook 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.” He’s also past the days of grilling at home. “Now we have to think twice.”

Rajabdeen no longer starts and ends the day with a glass of fresh milk as often as he used to. Because the price 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 the amount he used to drink. Although most other people get by with powdered milk, Rajabudeen doesn’t want that substitute stuff. He grew up with easy access to the best milk thanks to a relative who had a dairy farm and is not going to give it up entirely.

As a coffee drinker, he grimaces when asked about tea, Sri Lanka’s number one export and the second most consumed beverage in the world. “If you mix tea with milk, it’s not so good.”

Rajabdeen covers his goods with a plastic film to protect them from rain [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Not only what Rajabdeen eats has changed, but also how. Cooking gas supplies are difficult to obtain; Serpentine lines of people sitting with their gas cylinders have become a common sight. In his home, everything is cooked in an electric rice cooker – typically, as the name suggests, used to make rice. Now it’s more of an all-purpose magic pot used to cook different things. “Everyone does it,” he laughs, “we do a lot of time with Biryani. It’s a one-shot menu.”

Is he sometimes hungry? “Somehow we manage, we try to control our hunger. how do you eat Where is the money? Business has been slow, hasn’t it?” he replies. Items like cookies and chocolates now feel like luxury treats and have been removed from the shopping list.

Though he’s not a huge sweet tooth eater, his children do have a sweet tooth, one he’s had little opportunity to indulge in lately. He points to the shop on a corner near the entrance to the market. “See Bombay Sweets?” he asks. Inside, behind their glass panes, squares and diamonds of white, cream, and green candies sit neatly in metal bowls. “Ask them, they know me,” he continues. “I used to be her favorite customer. I used to buy something there every day.” He bought Ladoos and pretty much everything, he laughs. Now those indulgences feel out of reach.

Black market fuel, high electricity costs

The battle for fuel is also daily and ongoing. Rajabdeen faces the same challenges as his compatriots. “There is no adequate fuel distribution infrastructure,” he says. Fuel costs between 450 and 550 Sri Lankan rupees ($1.25 to 1.53) and is almost impossible to buy unless you spend days in line. But today he’s reasonably happy because he’s finally managed to refuel.

He has bought several liters of diesel on the thriving black market, a market that has been booming since demand and supply differentials have dominated the country. A month ago he paid 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees for a liter ($2.78), but now it’s 3,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($8.34). “We talked to so many people and it was with great difficulty that we got it,” he says.

His father was initially skeptical when they bought the fuel, unsure if it was of good quality. They own two vans, including the Tempo they use for business, and a tricycle. He last used the tricycle three months ago. From time to time he buys small amounts of fuel for this vehicle, but not to actually drive it. “We just use it to keep the engine starting and keeping it active. We keep it in the same place,” he says.

His father often sleeps over at the market because they can’t afford to drive their pace home every day; Meanwhile, Rajabdeen drives 10 km (6 miles) back and forth.

Rajabdeen has worked in the railway and textile industries, but prefers to work with his father for the time being. He also has his own entrepreneurial ideas, but at the moment only few resources to realize them. “It’s not my life,” he says. “I have big ideas and big plans.”

Two men look at an electricity bill
Rajabdeen looks at his high electricity bill [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

It begins to rain and Rajabdeen rushes to pull down a sheet of plastic to protect his goods. Then he pulls out his electricity bill and runs his finger through the ascending numbers. It is up to 835 Sri Lankan rupees (2.32 USD) for the last month, more than the usual 500 Sri Lankan rupees (1.39 USD). Backlogs are also piling up.

While power outages of up to four hours a day are common, managing power consumption is a challenge of its own. “We use the fan less and turn off the fridge at night,” he says.

‘Let’s hope’

The crisis has also pushed Rajabdeen’s wife, previously a housewife, into the job market. “How else are you supposed to do it? How to manage?” he asks. She works in other people’s homes now.

His son and two daughters have not been to school for weeks. The government ordered schools to close in several areas during the crisis due to power outages and shortages of fuel to transport children. “The children are so sad that the school is closed,” he says.

The country is also facing severe shortages of medicines. Rajabdeen takes pills to control his diabetes but this has become irregular lately. “How to buy?” he asks. A combination of a lack of fuel, a low supply of medicines in government hospitals, and a lack of time have left him neglecting his health.

But his woes didn’t start that year with the economic crisis. COVID-19 has also been a terrible time with lockdown and business thinning out. And the roots of his cynicism go back even further. In April 2019, gunmen bombed a number of churches and hotels in and around Colombo. The so-called Easter attacks killed 269 people. A wave of Islamophobia followed, fueled by some uncompromising Buddhist majority voices. “We had a lot of problems. [The majority] fought and said don’t buy ours [Muslim community’s] Eat, don’t buy our groceries, don’t come to our hotels,” Rajabdeen recalled. The country’s population is about 9.7 percent Muslim and 70 percent Buddhist.

What remains of the country’s future? “Dead,” says Rajabdeen. “But let’s hope for the best.”

He used to be a movie buff, he says, and often went to the cinema to see films, but now he has other responsibilities.

When he thinks about the movies, it brings a smile to his face when he recalls a random event not so long ago. In April, around the time the protests began in Colombo’s Galle Face Green, Rajabdeen stood in line with his yellow tricycle, a vehicle he had bought in 1987. A member of the film crew of an upcoming sports biopic spotted it and approached it. Could they use it for their shoot they asked.

Subsequently, Rajabdeen also got a small cameo in the film, playing a soldier. He beams as he shows off his military green cap, a prop from the set that he got to take home. It was a rare and exciting opportunity, perhaps one that would not have presented itself without the special circumstances of queuing for fuel. “God gave me this chance,” he smiles.

This coverage was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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