By Kanishkaa Balachandiran/The Hindu
Bengaluru April 13: Since Sri Lanka slowly but surely opened its doors to international travel, anyone planning to visit has had to make some compromise or the other. Till not too long ago, one had to accept rather draconian quarantine measures to be able to set foot in the country. But just as the world was limping back to some semblance of normalcy, Sri Lanka’s self-made economic crisis, heightened by the pandemic, was starting to make world headlines.
When I saw a window of opportunity with COVID restrictions being relaxed, I decided to squeeze in a ten-day personal visit towards the end of March. In the lead-up though were scenes of protests outside government offices, reports of gas shortages and cylinders stuck at the harbour because the government was broke on foreign exchange. Fuel shortages made power outages inevitable, and it would only get worse.
What does a tourist do? Accept a compromise and hope for things to get better. Why was I even slightly hopeful? Having visited Sri Lanka several times over the course of 25 years, I have seen the country undergo rapid transformation since the tension of the ethnic conflict. In the mid-2000s, I experienced phased power cuts of not more than three hours in the evenings, definitely more manageable than the current crisis. Around that time, a suicide bomber detonated a police station in the heart of Colombo, forcing a curfew, that was mercifully lifted soon.
However, the current economic crisis is extraordinary in itself and at the time the writing, non-violent protests have swelled with cricketers and middle-class working professionals calling for the President and his family to resign. It’s also a stroke of luck perhaps that I departed for India hours before the Emergency was declared, just when the muck had truly hit the fan.
During my cab ride from the airport to my father’s place in central Colombo, we pass through pitiful scenes of people holding cans queuing up for fuel at petrol stations under the harsh afternoon sun. My driver Sriyantha is simultaneously making arrangements to source a gas cylinder for his home, though at a hefty premium. He shrugs and tells me there is no other alternative. He offers his services if I plan to travel elsewhere during my stay. I ask him for his card. He tells me rather apologetically he had run out of them and can’t get any more printed due to the shortage of printing ink. This time he chuckles, though it’s more out of sheer hopelessness.
The shortages were spreading. The Island newspaper announced it would not print its Saturday edition due to a newsprint shortage. Another report mentioned the halting of printing school text books with ink in short supply. Liquid milk in supermarkets was like gold dust. Schools were cutting back on sending their vans to fetch and drop students home due to the fuel crisis. I saw swanky SUVs queuing up for diesel at the fuel station at Horton Place all the way deep into Maitland Crescent. Mind you, this area houses the city’s elite, embassies and diplomats.
The power cuts were unpredictable. It began with outages in two phases for around 5-6 hours in total. However, towards the end of March, it doubled overnight to 10 hours and then a doomsday 13 hours. I heard it wasn’t consistently this way across all areas. The outer suburbs reported much longer outages, some exceeding the 11 pm deadline, going by some social media posts.
As the cuts mounted to 10 hours and more, the newspapers published power cut schedules across the country, split into different phases. Despite this, power would be erratic, going off schedule and making it nearly impossible for people to plan their day around the cuts. One can only imagine the nightmare in a work-from-home scenario.
However, the popular southern coast was bustling with tourists, particularly from Europe. Even during the hottest hours, tourists were seen hitting the waves with their surfboards and exploring the seaside towns in groups, presumably to escape the ongoing power cuts. Save for the upscale ones, most do not have power backup. It was sultry when I checked into my resort in Mirissa, further down the coast from Galle. Power wasn’t expected for at least another three hours. We all could do nothing else but smile and accept the new reality. The sea breeze was the only saviour.
In the week leading to the Emergency and subsequent curfew – both of which were revoked quickly after citizens’ unrest – there was an eerie calm around Colombo. The peace itself seemed disconcerting, as if you knew something was about to happen but you could never tell when.
On the evening of March 31, power had returned, breaking with schedule and central Colombo was lit up. While some parts were in darkness, malls were buzzing, skyscrapers in the downtown Fort area were brilliantly lit in a thoughtless exhibition of opulence, as people ventured out for their mid-week social. What was impossible to tell was that in another part of town, outside the President’s house in Mirihana, tensions were escalating. Within hours, a nightlong curfew was imposed.
A brief chat with a three-wheeler driver summed up the general cynicism around the ruling party. I mention that the cuts have been scaled up to 13 hours. “No hope, sir. Tomorrow they say 15, next it will be full 24 hours,” he thunders.