Economic crisis in Sri Lanka affects tea pickers

Arulappan Ideijody carefully plucks the tops of each tea shrub on a verdant plantation in Sri Lanka, tossing them over her shoulder into an open basket on her back.

She and her husband, fellow picker Michael Colin, 48, get roughly 30,000 rupees, or about $80, after a month of selecting more than 18 kg (40 lb) of such tea leaves each day.

“It’s not nearly enough money,” Arulappan, 42, said of the couple’s wages, which must support the couple’s three children as well as her elderly mother-in-law.

“We used to eat two veggies a day, but now we can only eat one.”

Millions of Sri Lankans are suffering from the island’s greatest economic crisis in decades.

The COVID-19 epidemic destroyed the Indian Ocean nation’s tourism lifeblood, which was already short on cash due to the government’s hefty tax cuts.

Sri Lanka has gone to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency bailout after running out of foreign money to buy food, gasoline, and medications.

Inflation and shortages have triggered weeks of protests, which have occasionally turned violent.

Plantation workers like Arulappan, who are mostly from the island’s Tamil minority, are hit harder than others since they don’t own any property to protect them from rising food prices.

Her family is one of 17 who live in traditional “line dwellings,” which are box-like, single-story terraces that have remained unmodified in form since Britain’s colonial administration ended in 1948.

Green hills spread for kilometers around, while fragrant woodsmoke rises over the houses from the families’ cooking fires made of burning tea branches.

Their fortunes reflect the rise and collapse of an economy that emerged in 2009 from a decades-long civil conflict.

Sri Lanka’s GDP in 2020 was over double that of neighboring India, thanks to a thriving tourism sector and exports of textiles and agricultural goods like tea, rubber, and cinnamon.

Arulappan dropped out of school at the age of 14 and worked in a garment industry before marrying and settling on a plantation in Bogawantalawa, a region in the central highlands known for its superb teas and roughly four hours east of Colombo, the commercial city.

Because of the job’s flexible hours, she was able to care for her children while also starting a small company selling veggies on credit to other employees.

The epidemic, however, was a blow for the family and the nation, shutting down the economy for months and cutting off the tourist sector, which is a major source of foreign currency.

“There were days when all we ate was rice,” Arulappan said.

A controversial government move last year to restrict artificial fertilisers as a health measure hurt the tea sector, which employs hundreds of thousands of people. The embargo, which was eventually lifted, left fertilisers in limited supply.

The Sri Lanka Tea Board said dry weather had taken a toll on plants that had received little fertiliser following the ban, with first-quarter tea production down 15% on the year to its lowest level since 2009.

Long power outages, fuel shortages, and rising prices all contributed to the industry’s “near catastrophic meltdown,” according to Plantation Association spokesperson Roshan Rajadurai.

Arulappan has been unable to make the last two months’ payments on a series of high-interest loans she obtained to launch her business, pay for a family wedding, and settle other obligations due to the crisis.

Official numbers suggest that food inflation is reaching 50% year on year, and transportation is about 70% more costly, while in actuality the rates are substantially higher.

The cost of flour has risen in the last year, putting the coconut-infused flatbreads that many plantation workers eat while picking tea out of reach.

“We had no choice but to eat rice. But even that is now too expensive “Arulappan said.

The cost of her two younger children’s two-kilometer bus commute to school has more than quadrupled in recent months, but the couple continues to pay for private tuition to secure a better life for them.

“I’ll never let my children work on a plantation,” Michael added.

However, the situation has put their plans for their eldest son, Akshon Ray, to attend university on hold.

Arulappan had been saving for a laptop for the 22-year-old for two years, which she promised him if he did well on his final examinations.

A folder with the brochure for the university where he wanted to study sits atop the family’s metal wardrobe. However, the financial strain was too much.

Arulappan reminded her son right before he departed to work at a broom factory in Colombo, “You have to support the family.”

She has no idea where he will be staying.

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