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Church urges Sri Lankan prez to address economic woes

Bishops' body says people are on the verge of starvation as prices surge, unable to meet health needs due to medicine shortages
A vendor arranges vegetables at a market in Colombo on July 4. There is no price control for essential goods in the market and many people are on the verge of starvation in bankrupt Sri Lanka, say Catholic bishops

A vendor arranges vegetables at a market in Colombo on July 4. There is no price control for essential goods in the market and many people are on the verge of starvation in bankrupt Sri Lanka, say Catholic bishops. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 30, 2023 10:42 AM GMT
Updated: August 30, 2023 11:07 AM GMT

The Sri Lankan Church has urged the government to address the economic woes of citizens as prices of essential items have skyrocketed in the bankrupt island nation.

"Children come to school without proper nutrition, proper clothing and the exercise books and school stationery they need. Parents are unable to fulfill the educational needs of their children," the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sri Lanka (CBCSL) said in a statement.

The statement signed by CBCSL President Bishop Harold Anthony Perera and Secretary General Bishop J. D. Anthony said that the interim government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe does not have a clear path to address the basic needs of people.

"There is no price control for essential goods in the market. Many people are on the verge of starvation," the prelates said on Aug. 29.

There is a severe shortage of medicines in hospitals and many people are unable to meet their health needs, they observed.

Save the Children, a charity organization, said that half of the families in the country of 22 million are forced to cut the amount they spend on their children’s food. 

The school uniform costs at least 2,000 rupees (US$6), almost twice the earlier cost. A pair of school shoes costs around 3,000 rupees, which used to be 1,000 rupees earlier, and a box of 12 colored pencils is now 580 rupees. Their earlier rate was 270 rupees. 

Since late 2021, the Indian Ocean nation has been facing its worst-ever economic crisis due to mounting foreign debt and a lack of foreign reserves to repay them.

After defaulting on its $46 billion debt last April, the import-oriented nation sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and secured a $2.9 billion loan in March this year. As a condition, the IMF has suggested tightening public spending and rolling back policies that led to the crisis.  

The government has already hiked income tax and cut power and fuel subsidies, fulfilling some of the conditions. Sri Lanka will get $333 million soon with more funds in the coming months.

"The immediate need should be to promote agriculture and other local products for the livelihood of the people. It is shocking to hear that many food items such as rice, eggs and coconut oil are imported, although they can be produced in the country," the prelates said.

They said if the local farmers are given incentives, the same products could be produced in the country.

On Aug. 29, the cabinet approved the import of 92.1 million eggs, costing around $55 million, from neighboring India in the next three months to stabilize the prices of eggs in the local market.

According to the National Animal Producers’ Association, nearly 11,000 egg farms have been closed during the past nine months due to the increase in the prices of mother animals as well as feed and medicines.

The island nation is currently headed by the interim government after former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee the country after angry protesters demanded his resignation last year in the wake of the severe economic crisis.

Civil society organizations are urging the government to hold elections as soon as possible.

Stand for Democracy said postponing the elections is a violation of the sovereign rights of citizens.

"There are currently no elected representatives of the people at the local government and provincial level, and these institutions are controlled by a group of unelected officials who are controlled by a centralized executive," Stand for Democracy said on Aug. 29.

Interim President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that no local elections would be held until the country's economy is on the right track.

"We must create a society where democracy is truly manifested, such as securing the independence of the judiciary, free and fair elections, and securing people's participation in political life," said the bishops.

In the statement, the prelates asked political leadership to become instruments of social revival and safeguard the dignity and rights of all sections of society.

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