Supermarket shelves are bare and restaurants can’t serve meals, but Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is a bonanza for used car dealers, with vehicle shortages pushing prices higher than a house in a nice area.
The island nation of 22 million is on the brink of bankruptcy, inflation is red hot and the government has barred a range of “non-essential” imports to save dollars needed to buy food, medicine and fuel.
In the car market, this two-year ban has kept factory-fresh automobiles off local roads, forcing desperate buyers to pay some of the world’s highest prices for beaten-up compacts and no-frills family sedans.
Anthony Fernando spent a recent weekend coursing through sales lots in the Colombo outskirts on behalf of his daughter, who has tried to find an affordable set of wheels for nearly a year.
“She was thinking that prices will come down,” the 63-year-old told AFP, but now she is “paying for procrastinating”.
Prices have gone “beyond the reach of a common person”, he said.
A five-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser was on offer online for an eye-watering 62.5 million rupees ($312,500) — triple the pre-ban rate, and enough to buy a house in a middle-class Colombo neighbourhood or a new luxury apartment in the city centre.
A decade-old Fiat five-seater with a busted engine that might be stripped for parts elsewhere was listed at $8,250 — more than twice Sri Lanka’s average yearly income.
“A car and a house are symbols of success,” said a grinning Sarath Yapa Bandara, the owner of one of the capital’s biggest dealerships.
“That is why most people are willing to buy even at these high prices.”
– ‘Out of this world’ –
Car ownership remains a virtual necessity in the traffic-snarled streets of Colombo, where a ramshackle bus and rail network was already struggling with overcrowding.
The number of taxis has also fallen sharply, with drivers selling their cabs to cash in on the dizzying prices, and those still working charging double their old fares or more.
“You must have your own car,” said Udaya Hegoda Arachchi, another buyer preparing to bite the bullet at a dealership.
“We can’t expect prices to come down anytime soon, given the economic situation in the country,” he told AFP.
Covid has sent Sri Lanka into a tailspin, drying up all-important earnings from tourism and foreign remittances.
In March 2020 the government brought in a wide-ranging import ban — including for new cars — to stop foreign currency from leaving the country.
But the policy has not been able to staunch the outflow of dollars, and has instead left the nation struggling to source critical goods.
Food retailers have rationed rice, restaurants have shuttered because they cannot find cooking gas, and cash-strapped power utilities unable to afford oil have imposed rolling blackouts. Farmers have run out of fertiliser.
– Chinese debt –
Rating agencies have warned that Sri Lanka might default soon although the government says it will meet its commitments. It is trying to renegotiate its Chinese debts with Beijing.
The import ban has also left car parts in short supply, meaning drivers are at risk of being stranded after a breakdown.
Ravi Ekanayake told AFP that his Colombo repair garage was doing a roaring trade from owners unable to afford the astronomical costs of switching to a new vehicle.
“But parts are scarce. It is a catch-22: You either get caught with an old car without parts or you don’t have the money to buy a new car.”
Financial analyst Murtaza Jafferjee said the prices also underscored a problem caused by excessive money printing by a cash-strapped central bank, with “too much money chasing too few goods”.
He said the prices were also increasing transport costs and adding to inflation, which hit a record 14 percent in December.
“When vehicles become unaffordable for a segment of society, their activities will be limited. Then we will also see a loss of economic output,” the CEO of JB Securities said.
“We are about to collapse and not many people appreciate the depth of the problem.”
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered a probe Wednesday into his niece’s overseas wealth after she and her husband were alleged in the Pandora Papers to have millions of dollars stashed abroad.
The opposition immediately cried foul, saying that the investigation would amount to a cover-up by the Rajapaksa family which has been powerful in the island nation for decades.
Cabinet spokesman Dulles Alahapperuma said the president asked the main anti-graft body to issue a report on the assets of Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan “within one month”.
Nirupama Rajapaksa, 59, was a legislator in the previous governments of another uncle, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current prime minister, between 2004 and 2015 and was a junior minister for five years.
The couple’s names were among dozens of prominent personalities worldwide featured in roughly 11.9 million documents leaked from financial services firms that managed their wealth.
The Pandora Papers were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and released in stories by media partners including The Washington Post, the BBC and The Guardian.
Allegations range from corruption to money laundering and tax evasion.
The ICIJ said that according to its analysis of a Nadesan trust’s financial statements, Nirupama Rajapaksa and Nadesan had offshore holdings worth about $18 million in 2017.
In emails to Asiaciti Trust, a Singapore-based financial services provider, a longtime adviser of Nadesan’s put his overall wealth in 2011 at more than $160 million, the ICIJ said.
The couple declined to comment, the ICIJ said.
Holding assets offshore or using shell companies is not illegal in Sri Lanka, but it must be declared to the local tax authorities.
The government last month passed legislation granting an amnesty to tax dodgers hoping that the move will bring back wealth stashed abroad at a time when the island is facing a serious shortage of foreign exchange.
Leftist opposition legislator Anura Dissanayake said they had little faith in the latest investigation which had he said had been set up to deflect public anger.
“Investigations are a mechanism to suppress the truth and protect the guilty,” Dissanayake told AFP.
Nadesan has been indicted in a local money laundering case in 2016 along with another Rajapaksa sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, who is the current finance minister. The case is pending.
The ‘Pandora Papers’ are the latest in a series of mass leaks handled by the ICIJ, from LuxLeaks in 2014, to the 2016 Panama Papers.
They were followed by the Paradise Papers in 2017 and FinCen files in 2020.
Sri Lanka announced Friday that its economy shrank 3.6 percent last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, making it the worst downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
The unprecedented recession compared with a 2.3 percent GDP growth in 2019, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka said in its annual report for 2020.
It hoped the economy would rebound in 2021 and record an optimistic six percent growth on the back of improved local manufacturing and services.
“The pandemic has also offered an opportunity to reset the economy’s focus and to address longstanding structural weaknesses and establish a production-based, productivity-driven economy,” the bank said.
The pandemic hit the island’s lucrative tourism sector while sharp contractions were seen in construction, manufacturing as well as in services, the bank said.
It said the central government’s debt also rose to 101 percent of GDP last year, up from 86.8 percent of GDP in the previous year, underscoring the debt crisis faced by the South Asian nation.
International rating agencies have expressed fears for Sri Lanka’s ability to service its huge foreign debt as the country’s foreign reserves fell sharply in the past year.
The island’s economy was trying to recover from the effects of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 279 people when the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Two weeks ago, Sri Lanka secured a $500 million loan from China to shore up its foreign exchange reserves as the local currency came under intense pressure and fell to a record low.
Chinese influence in the South Asian nation has been growing in recent years through loans and projects under its vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, raising concerns among regional powers and Western nations.
Between 2005 and 2015, Colombo borrowed billions from China, accumulating a mountain of debt for expensive infrastructure projects.
Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company in 2017 after it was unable to service the $1.4 billion debt from Beijing used to build it.
Sri Lanka and China have signed a $1.5 billion currency swap deal, the island nation’s central bank said Tuesday, as it struggles with a major foreign exchange crisis and debt repayments.
Colombo had been negotiating for months to secure credit from China — its largest single source of imports — as the island’s foreign reserves plummet amid the pandemic.
Chinese influence in the South Asian nation has been growing in recent years, through loans and projects under its vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, raising concerns among regional powers and Western nations.
The Central Bank of Sri Lanka said the three-year swap arrangement for 10 billion yuan with the People’s Bank of China was “with a view to promoting bilateral trade and direct investment for the economic development of the two countries”.
Officials said talks were also underway to secure another $700 million from the China Development Bank.
Sri Lanka’s economy was already reeling from the deadly 2019 Easter bombings, with the coronavirus epidemic and lockdowns further weighing on growth.
The economy contracted by a record 3.9 percent last year.
Foreign reserves fell to $4.5 billion in February from $8.0 billion a year ago, despite Sri Lanka banning the import of luxury goods and vehicles as well as some food commodities.
Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015, Colombo borrowed billions from China, accumulating a mountain of debt for expensive infrastructure projects.
Rajapaksa returned to power as prime minister in 2019, after his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president.
Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company in 2017 after Colombo said it was unable to service the $1.4 billion debt from Beijing used to build it.
Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said CCTV footage suggested the bus driver was negligent before the accident. An investigation was underway.
It was the worst bus crash since April 2005 when a driver tried to beat a train at a level crossing at the north-western town of Polgahawela. The bus driver escaped with minor injuries, but 37 passengers were killed.
Sri Lanka records an average of 3,000 road fatalities annually making the island’s roads among the most dangerous in the world.
Sri Lanka will restrict daily visitor numbers to 2,500, authorities said on Thursday, as it cautiously opened its doors to foreign tourists again after a 10-month coronavirus shutdown.
The reopening comes despite a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, as authorities seek to revive a once-lucrative tourism sector devastated by the deadly 2019 Easter bombings and the pandemic.
The cap on visitors will help stop the island nation’s coronavirus testing facilities from becoming overwhelmed, according to the Tourism Promotion Bureau.
“We have placed a daily limit of 2,500 tourists to make sure that there are enough PCR tests for repatriating Sri Lankans,” tourism chief Kimarli Fernando told reporters in the capital Colombo.
Qatar Airways, Emirates and several other airlines currently operate repatriation and transit flights, and have brought home some 40,000 Sri Lankans since late July.
But another 68,000 are waiting to return, according to the government.
Sri Lankan doctors have called for a ramp up in PCR testing amid a surge in infections since October, that has seen the number of cases spike from 3,300 to more than 55,000.
Fernando said the immigration department has issued 75 tourist visas since officials announced the reopening on Monday.
“Not big numbers, but we have to make a start. Hotels are getting a lot of inquiries,” she said.
The government has set strict Covid-19 protocols for visitors, including limiting them to 55 designated hotels, requiring a negative PCR test result before arrival and insurance to cover Covid-19 related illnesses.
Some 2.3 million tourists visited the sun-soaked country in 2018 — the highest-ever.
But foreign visitor numbers fell to 1.9 million the following year after the deadly Easter bombings in April.
Sri Lanka has saved some 120 pilot whales in a gruelling overnight rescue involving the navy, officials said Tuesday, after the island nation’s biggest stranding.
Three pilot whales and one dolphin died of injuries following the mass beaching on Monday on the country’s western coast at Panadura some 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the capital Colombo.
A handful of whales had started beaching in the early afternoon and their numbers swelled to more than 100 by dusk, overwhelming local volunteers, resident Pathum Hirushan told AFP.
“Some of the fishermen from the area tried to push back the whales. The sea was rough and the waves would bring them back to shore,” Hirushan said.
“It was very tiring, but later the navy came in with their boats and worked through the night.”
The navy and the coastguard, as well as dozen of volunteers, were able to move the other mammals into deeper waters with the aid of small patrol craft by dawn on Tuesday, navy spokesman Indika de Silva told AFP.
Volunteers had come forward to help with the rescue despite the region being under a days-long lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pilot whales — which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and weigh a tonne — are highly social.
The causes of mass strandings remain unknown despite scientists studying the phenomenon for decades.
The wildlife department’s chief veterinarian Tharaka Prasad told AFP autopsies were carried out on the dead whales and officials were “satisfied they were disoriented”.
He hailed the rescue as one of the most successful in the world.
Authorities had braced for mass deaths after some 360 out of 470 pilot whales that beached in a remote harbour in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania in September were not able to be saved.
Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority had said Monday that the Panadura stranding was the South Asian country’s largest.
The last mass beaching in Sri Lanka was in June 2017 when 20 pilot whales were stranded at a beach in the coastal town of Sampur near Trincomalee harbour in the country’s northeast. All were saved.
A sperm whale was stranded inside Trincomalee harbour in April 2011 and two navy boats guided it out into deeper waters where it was reunited with waiting whales.
The waters around Trincomalee, used by Allied forces as a staging post during World War II, have a high concentration of blue and sperm whales.
Sri Lanka’s president vowed Wednesday to abolish a controversial constitutional provision restricting his powers as he opened a new parliamentary session following his party’s sweeping election victory.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, campaigned for voters to give their party a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the August 5 poll so they could roll back reforms brought in by the previous administration.
Their Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) won 145 seats and secured the support of six allies, one seat more than the minimum number needed to change the constitution in the 225-seat legislature.
“The people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment,” Rajapaksa said in his address to parliament, adding it would be “our first task”.
He also repeated a previous assertion, without giving further details, that he wanted an entirely new constitution to replace the current one introduced in 1978 when Sri Lanka changed to a presidential system.
The Rajapaksa brothers are adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for spearheading the defeat of Tamil separatist militants in 2009 to end the bloody 37-year civil war when Mahinda was president and Gotabaya was secretary to the ministry of defence.
But they have also attracted criticism from the international community, with the security services they controlled accused of war crimes committed in the final months of the conflict.
Mahinda was ousted from the presidency after a decade in power when he lost the 2015 elections.
But with Gotabaya’s election in the November 2019 presidential poll, and his appointment of Mahinda as PM, analysts warn that the brothers would try to ensure they do not lose power again.
– Murderer, accused killer in new parliament –
Gotabaya’s remarks came as the new parliament opened its first session Thursday with a murderer and an accused killer among its ranks.
One member of the new legislature was convicted of murder only after nominations closed for the August 5 polls — allowing him to run for a seat — while another is awaiting trial.
Premalal Jayasekara, a returning MP from the ruling SLPP, was found guilty in the killing of a political activist in 2015.
Jayasekara — who did not appear in person for the first parliamentary session — is appealing against the verdict as well as the death sentence he was given.
He is the first convicted murderer to serve as an MP in Sri Lanka, where there is no provision under the law to disqualify him until he serves six months behind bars.
Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, in parliament for the first time after winning a seat for a minor party in an alliance with the SLPP, was escorted from prison to attend Thursday’s parliamentary session.
He is awaiting trial for allegedly killing a legislator during a 2005 Christmas mass.
Brushes with the law are no bar to a career in politics in South Asia.
More than 40 percent of lawmakers in neighbouring India’s parliament face criminal charges — some as serious as murder and rape –- according to an electoral reform group, the Association of Democratic Reforms.