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Nilanthi Sandamali walked two kilometres on the day she gave birth. Leaning occasionally on her husband to catch her breath, feet swollen, back on fire, she descended five flights to exit the state housing building in which they lived, and walked to the nearest train station in northern Colombo. They had searched for a trishaw to take them. Once they had travelled one stop by train, they searched again, the maternity clinic still some distance away. There were none to be found.
It was midday, in mid-July. Less than two weeks after the biggest protests in independent Sri Lanka’s history had sent the president on the run, the country was still in the deepest recesses of a fuel shortage. While queues coiled for kilometres around neighbourhoods, the main streets had been swept almost entirely of moving traffic, only a skeleton crew of buses in operation.
At the hospital, doctors told Nilanthi that her blood pressure was dangerously high. Labour would have to be induced immediately, almost three weeks before the due date.
It would not have been an easy pregnancy in the best of times. Nilanthi was nauseous throughout, often unable to keep rice or bread down, frequently finding meat unappetising. She craved fruit and vegetables: anything that grew out of the ground in a tropical nation famed for its fertile soil.
But while her husband’s salary as a postal worker remained moored to a leaden economy, the cost of groceries had shot into the stratosphere. The prices of staple vegetables such as carrots, cabbages, and brinjals were more than two-and-a-half times what they used to be at the same time last year—an inflation rate of around 150 percent. Green chillies were three times the price. Rice was more than double, with dhal not far behind.  Fish, which Nilanthi could just about stomach, had become a luxury, with many fishers stranded on land, without fuel. Eggs were twice what they used to be one week, three times another week, out of stock the next.
She knew she could not nourish her body as she had for previous pregnancies. When a relative brought papaya and mango, Nilanthi ate much of it herself, leaving little for her two older children, aged eight and 12. “What else to do but be heartbroken?” she asks.
Despite her parents’ best efforts, Minuli weighed less than 2kg at birth. Nilanthi’s older children had been a tick either side of 2.5kg—the cut-off for low birth weight in Sri Lanka. “We just don’t have things the way we used to,” she says. After the birth, Minuli was immediately placed in an incubator.
Nilanthi was so distraught that nurses had sought to admit her to a psychiatric ward, until they were talked out of it by a doctor.
Many more Sri Lankan families are set to face considerable anguish. Devika Kodituwakku, president of the Government Midwives Association, says malnutrition has already reached alarming levels. “Somehow, in the first six months, the mothers will do what it takes to breastfeed the child,” she says. “But when they are a bit older, now we’re seeing them lose weight in ways we didn’t used to. If you take 50 children, we’re seeing a drop in weight in about 20 of them.”
According to a UNICEF report published in June, 5.7 million Sri Lankans, including 2.3 million children, required humanitarian assistance in the first few months of the country’s economic crisis. This is out of a population of 22 million. A World Food Programme brief published in July warned that malnourishment is expected to worsen: it estimated that there were already 6.3 million food-insecure people in the country. 
Alarm bells have been ringing all the way up the food supply chain. Sri Lanka’s farmers had been staging protests for months before the wider population descended on the streets.
Finding myself aghast at how many families were struggling to feed themselves in my Colombo neighbourhood, where people sometimes broke down in tears when offered money for groceries, I took a train into the island’s agricultural heartlands in early August, hoping to understand the strain the crisis had exerted on growers and distributors.
Out of Power, Colombo
ack when the big hunger only had the poorest in its maws, before it began to swallow the middle classes, it was the power cuts in the sticky heat of March and April that tipped the country into tumult. The protests swelled through those early months. Outside the grand, colonnaded Presidential Secretariat near Colombo’s Galle Face Green, thousands gathered nightly, like white blood cells rounding on a pathogen.
Then, just as the movement seemed to be deflating, an astonishing second wave formed in July, the nadir of the fuel crisis bringing ever greater numbers onto the streets. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Colombo, claiming official residences and offices in a manic week of civil disobedience that forced the president’s resignation.
Families that once had three vegetables with lunch are now down to one. Luxuries like cheese do not make grocery lists. The poorest have been skipping meals all year.
In the months since, the protests have been dismantled by the new president Ranil Wickremesinghe. While he harnesses military and police power with fresh ferocity, those in power argue that discontent has subsided because fuel is more abundant and power is available for most of the day. In truth, fuel is strictly rationed, and the better electricity supply is largely down to the natural replenishment of reservoirs.
Where the electricity and fuel shortages were tectonic disruptions that shattered all but the super-rich, hunger was more insidious, portion sizes gradually diminishing, as meat, fish, and eggs began to disappear from the middle-class diet. Families that once had three vegetables with lunch are now down to one. Luxuries like cheese do not make grocery lists. The poorest have been skipping meals all year.
One of the reasons for the rise in food prices is the crash of the rupee by more than 80 percent. This has meant that imported foodstuffs like dhal—a diet staple, but not produced here in significant quantities—are out of reach for many. Locally grown produce has also been affected. Agricultural inputs such as weedicide, pesticide, and fertiliser come from overseas, and where once the government used to subsidise these inputs, it can no longer afford to do so to the same extent.
There is also galling scarcity. Of all the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s catastrophic policy decisions, the ban on chemical fertiliser enforced virtually overnight, in April 2021, may prove the most damaging of all. The organic fertiliser the government made available was essentially just ash, farmers reported, not the rich compost they’d been promised. Rice growers were particularly irate; the high-yield varieties they sowed were designed specifically to respond to urea and nitrogen-rich chemical fertilisers.
The ban has since been reversed, but farmers suffered shocking harvests in the growing season before the current one. Most reported a crop-volume reduction of around 40 percent. In some parts, that number was as high as 80 percent. 
Bulking Up, Dambulla
I bought this for 210 a kilo. Where are you going? I’ll give it to you for 190. This is good stuff. Look at it for a second. 170. This is good stuff!” M.M.V. Mudannayaka, a trader of middle years, is sitting on the flatbed of his truck in an off-white shirt and a dark sarong, trying to flog the last two sacks of his long beans.
In the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre, a vast locus of Sri Lanka’s fruit and vegetable trade, buyers stride purposefully into wholesale stores fondling enormous wads of cash. The mudalalis—store owners—make a blur out of the notes they flick through nimble fingers, porters unload sacks of onions, trucks sit low to the ground under the strain of a mountain of breadfruit, and little hills of pineapples lie ripe and fragrant, next to giant clusters of bananas.
The DDEC is the biggest wholesale market of its kind in the nation. The politicians who raised this monster in the late 1990s will call it the heart of Sri Lanka’s veg-and-fruit industry. It is more like its bowels. Farmers and their collectives funnel their harvest in at one end, trucks coming in three-wide along each of the three roadways. Stocks are typically unloaded into one of the 144 mini-warehouses. Distributors then carry them across Sri Lanka, the produce splitting off in smaller and smaller quantities, until it winds up at local greengrocers, corner shops, and on the wooden boards of roadside hawkers.
Mudannayaka is a Rajapaksa superfan. He doesn’t admit it at first, perhaps because love for the clan is no longer fashionable. But before long, he is holding forth on how masterfully Mahinda Rajapaksa oversaw the country’s development. He thinks Mahinda’s son Namal should be president down the line: “What is in his father is now in him.” For the devotees, only Rajapaksa flagella are sufficiently fit to power Sri Lanka to the ovum of its dreams.
In between, there are harrowing laments. The farmers in his hill-country village of Padiyapelella are barely producing this season, he tells me. To load up on goods, he must make the winding 50km journey to Keppetipola, then backtrack, travelling almost 200km to the DDEC.
In ordinary times, goods arrive at the DDEC from the very tips of the island. It is entirely possible that a brinjal that ends up on one family’s table was grown in the next neighbourhood, but has first come to be blessed at this temple of industry. The idea is that by centralising wholesale, farmers have access to the national market, and buyers can pick the best vegetables, irrespective of where they come from. But diesel is now scarce, and costs four times what it did last December. The model is falling apart.
“So what am I supposed to do?” Mudannayaka asks. “If I come here, I have barely enough fuel to get home. And then I can’t get any more for another week. I used to come five times a week.” In the previous months, the government had imposed severe rationing. A truck such as Muddannayaka’s could receive no more than 20 litres every seven days.
“We do whatever we can to make money, so I come once at least.”
“So what will happen if the fuel situation doesn’t change for you?” I ask.
“What do you think? I’ll only have to hang myself.”
It is callous to call this gallows humour, because suicides have crushed farming communities in recent decades. Farmer suicide numbers have fallen not because of policies to ease their plight, but due to a ban on the kind of pesticides they consumed to end their lives. 
While Mudannayaka’s enduring fealty to the Rajapaksas is perhaps down to his proximity to a local politician aligned with the family, many others in the DDEC are seething. “You can see, can’t you, what’s going on out there now?” asks Oshada Arachchi, the mudalali at Vaanevatha Trade Centre, gesturing out the entranceway of his store. “This isn’t even a fraction of what should be happening. A year ago, forget chit-chatting, I wouldn’t have had time to breathe.
“Farmers who used to bring 100 kilos are now bringing 35. Even when we have goods, who is going to buy it at this price? Barely half the buyers are coming now.”
When no buyers came to take them off his hands, a storeowner named A.S.M. Sadiq had to discard 1000kg of imported potatoes. “Now even the suppliers in Pakistan and China are sending us their worst goods,” he says. “They know we’re desperate.”
“All of us were part of the hata-nama lakshaya that voted in the Rajapaksas. But vote for them again? Let them try and even walk around here if they can.”
Almost everyone in the DDEC admits to having voted for the Rajapaksas in the 2019 presidential election, and the 2020 parliamentary polls. “All of us were part of the hata-nama lakshaya”—the 69 lakh voters who had voted Gotabaya in as president. But: “Vote for them again?” spits another mudalali. “Let them try and even walk around here if they can.”
For many of the DDEC’s most prolific years, the Rajapaksas and their political allies were beloved. Anthropologist Luke Heslop, who has researched the DDEC, tells me that the portrait of Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, a member of parliament whose association with the Rajapaksas stretches back decades, used to be seen in many stores.
The DDEC’s boom had been propelled by the substantial improvements to rural roads seen during Mahinda’s second presidential term.
Even Dambulla, now a bona-fide city, had been raised from its small-town slumber partly by this industry. Only three decades ago, the main intersection had been called goma handiya—cow shit junction.
And yet, when a mob roused by Mahinda had attacked the main protest site in Colombo on 9 May this year, more than 100 homes and offices associated with the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party were torched in retaliation. Tennekoon’s house in Dambulla was among them.
Inconvenient Calculations, Polonnaruwa
hularatna Bandara is chuckling. “What are you doing? Put that thing back in your pocket and leave immediately.” He has just taken off his frayed yellow shirt which, when he was in the field, had its sleeves rolled all the way down, and buttons done all the way up. In the shade of a towering bodhi tree, he adjusts his spectacles with a calloused hand, then peels off a sun-beaten bucket hat that reveals salt-and-pepper hair.
Above us, an open-billed stork soars on mid-August thermals, searching the verdant paddy fields that stretch in every direction. By our feet, a clutch of empty plastic weedicide and pesticide bottles lay scattered around gnarled roots. It is mid-morning, a few kilometres south of the city of Polonnaruwa.
“Haven’t the rulers done enough to make farmers want to give up? You’ve come to torture us as well, putha?” 
“I’m only doing the maths,” I protest, showing him the numbers on my notebook.
“Oya ganan hadala hadala epaavela, oluwa kakkumak misak, hondak nam venne na.” The only thing these sums will do is give me a headache.
There are further sighs, shakes of the head and thin smiles. But he helps me complete the exercise.
“Right, so where are we up to now? We’ve broken down last season’s ridges and built new ridges in the field for 15,000. That’s the labour cost.” This works out to about 42 in American dollars, or 3,300 in Indian rupees.  “Then the man who tills the field now takes 25,000 for his fuel and machine. Then 7,500 for sowing. This time I had to spend about 40,000 for weedicide, because the stuff in the country doesn’t work. See, even today I am here cutting down weeds.”
“And the fertiliser. One sack used to cost 1,500 rupees. This time I paid 40,000 rupees. Some people paid 47,000 also. For one acre, you need at least two sacks.”
There are many other procedures, all of them expensive. You must re-establish ridges after heavy rains, apply pesticides as the crops mature, and recalibrate the nutrient content of the soil depending on how the stalks are coming up. This is all before the season’s biggest operation: the harvest.
“For that, you need to pay another 10,000 per acre for labour. And 25,000 for the harvest machine. And that’s only if the diesel prices don’t go up again.”
I arrive at the final number. Two hundred and fifteen thousand rupees to bring one acre of rice to harvest. I prevail on his kindness and we do a further set of sums.
“Right, so if the harvest is good, out of one acre, you could get 2,100 kilos of vee”—unprocessed rice grain. “I could sell that at 90 per kilo to the rice mill, or in good times sell it for 120. Let’s say 105 rupees per kilo on average.”
He knows what I’m about to tell him, of course. This has been his work for 35 years. I require the arithmetic to quantify the trouble but he has intuited the conclusion already. For four months of labour, and a lifetime of expertise, his seasonal take is 5,500—less than what it might cost to feed himself for only two weeks.
Dr. Buddhi Marambe, a professor in the department of crop science at the University of Peradeniya later tells me that although fertiliser prices are expected to stabilise in the next season, farmers will still have to pay more than ten times what they had in the months just preceding the import ban. Pesticides, however, will continue to be in short supply.
Bandara owns one-and-half acres, and cultivates another three-and-half acres under the poronduwa, or promise system, according to which he must deliver an agreed number of bushels of vee to the landowner. He can sell the rest. He won’t make a profit on the poronduwa plots this season, he thinks. He’s glad that liability belongs to someone else—a farmer, pleased at how little land he owns.
He’d sold his Maruti car to cover last season’s frightening losses. “Api puruddata thamai ithin dan karanne.” We’re only doing this out of habit now.
Sustenance To Subsistence, Chandana Pokuna
or many Sinhalese, the farmer is a figure of endless romance. It is he who feeds the nation, whose toil fills our plates, whose harvest seasons Sinhalese and Tamils honour in their celebrations. In mid-April, folks who have never set foot on a crop field, nor eaten a meal cooked on a woodfire stove, will let a pot of milk boil over in their granite-tiled living rooms, and post the pictures on Instagram.
“There is a connection with the land that farmers feel,” says Ariyawansa Abeysekara, an author of over a dozen books about rural Sri Lanka, and a Polonnaruwa local. “But then this idea that farmers feel a duty to feed Sri Lanka? Ah, that’s a middle-class myth. There are songs, there’s poetry, there’s artwork. But it’s all created by people from a different social class than the farmer.”
Next morning, a group of farmers in the village of Chandana Pokuna, a few kilometres north of Polonnaruwa, ask me straight up why they should farm anymore. Between the five women sat in N.R. Gnanawathi’s living room, they have more than 100 years of experience. The men in their households work other jobs. They are mechanics, trishaw drivers, and local vendors.
“Why would you do work that is not profitable?” asks Gayani Geethika, the most indignant in the room. “To just have one acre tilled costs four times what it used to. When the starting point is so expensive, what is the point?”
“If you have money, you can still do it,” says Gnanawathi. “You can pay for the fertiliser, pay whatever it costs for the pesticide and weedicide, and sow your fields again.”
“But what profit will you make?” This is Gayani again. “Even the rich ones are only doing it to feed themselves.”
“This is the place our rulers have taken us to,” Irangani Siriyalatha chimes in. “We have all these paddy fields to work in our village but even we are having to buy rice.”
The Rajapaksa family is the target of their ire. “They didn’t just rob the country, they stole even our livelihoods,” seethes Gayani. Each of these women had been part of the hata-nama lakshaya of Rajapaksa voters.
In some of the rice plots that were put to use, farmers are cultivating sweet potato and manioc: the kind of long-lasting, calorie-dense food grown by rural folk in the face of starvation.
For many years, all five have owed money to microfinance companies. They’d paid off astronomical interest out of the money from each season’s harvest, and then borrowed to help fund the following season’s planting. Every week, the microfinance agent rolls up to the front door on his motorbike. He peeks inside, and asks why they have not sold their furniture if they are as broke as they say.
This is the kind of vicious cycle that reinforces a largely middle- and upper-class conceit. In the imagination of the moneyed, their compatriots are irredeemably short-sighted, and willing to sell their vote to whoever will provide short-term economic relief.
But the farmers’ borrowing is no different from the kind successive Sri Lankan governments undertook, saddling the state with outsized debts on poor terms. For several years, even well-known economists have participated in a system that failed to seriously reform Sri Lanka’s woeful tax-to-GDP ratio.
In Chandana Pokuna, many families are down to two meals a day, mostly rustling up whatever they can find from the garden. Two of the women have young children. “They are so hungry, they roll around the ground, crying,” one tells me. At the local school, teachers have been sharing their own meals with students.
Perhaps half the fields around their village have been abandoned. In some of the rice plots that were put to use, farmers are cultivating sweet potato and manioc: the kind of long-lasting, calorie-dense food grown by rural folk in the face of starvation.
Through the course of our interaction, they ask me several questions.
“Will the government step in and pay off microfinance debt?”
“Will they provide dry rations when the food crisis gets worse?”
Do I know of any work they can do? “Handicrafts? Sewing? Making pickles? We’ll do anything.”
Seeds Of Doubt, Anuradhapura
hen Vishwa Dayaratne insists that the outfit he works for does not saddle customers with debts they can never pay, I wonder whether there can be such a thing as a non-predatory microfinance loan in an economy that squeezes a little more life out of families every week.
I met him by chance. His brother-in-law Susantha Wijeykoon and I had been friends for several years. On a previous trip to Anuradhapura, Susantha had ferried me around in his trishaw.
That evening, a bottle of arrack before us, we sit draped in moonlight on Susantha’s verandah while insects chirp into the evening. The ambience is of no one’s choosing. This neighbourhood, on the outskirts of the city, has been plunged into the second of its daily power cuts. Inside the house, Susantha’s three children swat away mosquitoes as they struggle to study or sleep.
“Our loans help people when they are in need,” Vishwa tells me. This is a relatively new job for him, one he took up after the flight booking company he had been working for had to jettison staff during the pandemic. The ongoing crisis is the third successive financial shock to the country. Before Covid waged its two-year war, the 2019 Easter Attacks had taken a bite out of Sri Lanka’s economy.
He rides a motorcycle around town, offering loans and collecting repayments.
“We make sure the people who take loans can actually pay them,” Vishwa says. “We do checks, look through their banking history, find out if they have other debts.”
He and his wife Gayathri Kumarasinha, who pops out later for a beer, have two children: one is 11, the other, four. They are in their mid-30s. He is tattooed, slim, and serious. She is quick-witted and jovial. As many conversations now do in Sri Lanka, this one soon turns to lament.
Though they have scaled down their lives, they’ve still found there was not enough to get them through. Every month, they become indebted to Vishwa’s company by drawing an advance on his salary. The children’s class fees alone cost a fifth of their income.
About a year ago, they had devised a route out of this debt cycle. As a child, Vishwa used to visit the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya, where his uncle, a farm manager, had taught him the basics of vegetable cultivation on terraced slopes. In the years since, Vishwa had taken to growing chillies, spinach, and ginger in his garden. In the depth of a Covid lockdown last year and pressed for cash, he decided to monetise his hobby.
For 1.5 lakh, they couldn’t afford a farmable plot of land any closer than the village of Maaningamuwa, roughly 22 kilometres northwest of Anuradhapura. After initially wondering whether they should grow pepper or cinnamon, they had settled on turmeric. While peppercorn vines and cinnamon trees can take years to mature, turmeric can turn a profit within a year, particularly as its price had spiked due to a government-imposed import ban.
They sank their savings, and themselves, into the work. They cleared the plot, fenced it, then had a tube well drilled. To operate power tools on the land, Vishwa got a friend from the government electricity body to slip him a 500-foot length of wire to pull power from a neighbouring home.
By the time the soil needed tilling, Sri Lanka had begun to run into fuel shortages, putting the tractors in Maaningamuwa out of operation. Vishwa leaned again on his contacts. Finding diesel on the black market, he ferried the cans on a bus. He had the soil turned over and the plant beds built up to their requisite two feet, turmeric being a crop that grows best in free-draining soil.
“What’s the point of there being no queues if there’s not enough fuel? I’ll run hires in my trishaw for one day, and sit at home for the other six.”
In Kandy, Vishwa purchased germination rhizomes, then found a lorry to transport 200 sacks of dahaiya, paddy chaff, that prevents weeds from growing on the plant beds. It was not until this April that the rhizomes went into the ground.
The family paid exorbitantly for all this. The costs of fuel, machine hires, labour and fertiliser had shot up exponentially since they bought the land. Turning a profit from this plot had now become critical in an economy that would leave them broke if they did nothing. Even if turmeric prices dropped, they could make 3 lakh, Vishwa had calculated. This was several times his monthly salary.
But then the fuel crisis entered its darkest phase. Vishwa couldn’t secure enough petrol to do so much as his day job. The bus from Anuradhapura to Thanthirimale, the only way to reach Maaningamuwa via public transport, ceased its tri-weekly operation entirely.
Vishwa and Gayathri couldn’t travel to their plot for six weeks.
A Withered Dream, Maaningamuwa
he next morning, Susantha and I make the trip out. Susantha had been able to get two-thirds of a tank of petrol to last us the journey. This meant he had exhausted his five-litre government-stipulated quota for the week.
“What’s the point of there being no queues if there’s not enough fuel?” Susantha fumes. QR codes had recently been assigned to each vehicle, and rations were now monitored digitally, in a surreal example of twenty-first century technology being applied to a problem no modern state should face. “I’ll run hires for one day, and sit at home for the other six.”
An hour later, we whack our way through long grass to reach Vishwa and Gayathri’s land. Susantha points out the turmeric plants. Once set out in neat rows, they are now choked by weeds. By this stage, the plants should have been at least waist-high. Those that have not dried up completely, barely reach my shins.
I spend the morning talking to Maaningamuwa’s farmers, who tell me that even their old-school slash-and-burn chena cultivation, which is less dependent on fertiliser, will not be profitable this season.
But at least this village will not know hunger in the near future, they say. They do not have the fish vendor come by anymore, but they eat three meals. The rice crop may be half what it was, but what little grows can be stored. No one will call it abundance. And yet they have corn, snake gourd, brinjal, wild greens, chillies, onions. There are banana plantations close by, as well as coconut and jackfruit trees, so prized for the sustenance they provide in lean times.
Towards the Rajapaksas, there is displeasure, but not the searing discontent I’ve come across elsewhere. “Let’s see what the new president gets done,” says I.B. Jayasinghe, who grows corn in a six-acre plot. Others tend to agree. “There has to be someone to lead the country, no? You can’t just kick out everyone.”
These are older men. They have lived through two violent socialist insurrections; the entirety of the war with its bombings and assassinations; several droughts; many unbearably wet monsoons. Every year, they confront herds of elephants who encroach on their crops, sometimes putting their lives on the line in these encounters. They are not tolerant of crises so much as hard-wired for them.
On an island that fractures anew each decade—Sinhalese seeking to brutally dominate all before them, minorities turning on other minorities—these are faint new ruptures. There are those who can comfortably feed themselves: some in far-flung agricultural villages such as this, others in plush homes with high garden walls. And then there are also those whose hauls from the markets dwindle by the week, whose children will not develop as they should, whose prospects contract, along with their stomachs.
As we leave, we pass through Vishwa and Gayathri’s field again. I stop at one of the plants, wondering about the tuber’s size, and begin to look around for something to dig with. But I stop myself. This is not my soil to turn, not my disappointment to quantify, not my withered dream to hold.
When I’d asked Vishwa the night before if he’d like to accompany us here, he’d told me straight: “No, I really don’t want to see it.”
On the trip back to Anuradhapura, we pass ancient man-made lakes, cormorants skimming the surface, painted storks fishing in the shallows, water buffalo wading deeper out. In the surrounds are the very lake-watered farmlands that had made the island an agricultural powerhouse in the Sinhalese imagination.
The old canals weave through them still, giving life to plots of almost violent green, long stalks erupting out of deep brown soil, vines clambering, buds forming, flowers in bloom, a riot of vegetation. These are weeds in fields that have been abandoned.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is a journalist based in Colombo, and author of the award-winning travelogue Upon a Sleepless Isle.