Sri Lankan tea pickers’ dreams shattered by the economic crisis

After picking more than 18kg of these tea leaves every day for a month, she and her husband, co-picker Michael Colin, 48, are getting about 30,000 rupees, or about $80 after the national islander devalued its currency.

“It’s far from enough,” said Arulappan, 42, of their earnings, which are intended to support the couple’s three children and the elderly mother-in-law.

“Where we used to eat two vegetables, we can now only afford one.”

She is one of millions of Sri Lankans suffering the worst economic crisis on the island in decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severed the tourist lifeline of the Indian Ocean, which is already underserved by major government tax cuts.

Because Sri Lanka had no foreign currency to buy essential food, fuel and medicines, Sri Lanka turned to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency relief program.

Rampant inflation and shortages led to weeks of protests that sometimes turned violent.

Plantation workers such as Arulappan, who mainly belong to the island’s Tamil minority, are more affected than most because they have no land to hedge against rising food prices.

His family is one of 17 people living in traditional “line homes” or single-storey box-like terraces, the design of which has not changed since the days of British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.

The emerald green hills stretch for miles, while above the cottages fragrant wood smoke rises from the burning tea branches that families use for their cooking fires.

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

Supported by a thriving tourist industry and exports of items such as clothing and plantation products such as tea, rubber and cinnamon, Sri Lanka reached a GDP nearly double that of neighboring India in 2020.

Arulappan dropped out of school at age 14 and worked in a garment factory before getting married and moving to the plantation in Bogawantalawa, a valley in the central highlands famous for its delicious tea and about a four-hour drive east of Colombo, the commercial capital is located.

Flexible working hours allowed her to care for her children and start a small business that sold vegetables to other workers on credit.

But the pandemic is a setback for the family and the country, bringing the economy to a standstill for months and shutting down the tourism industry, a major source of foreign exchange.

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

INFLATION SPIRAL

The tea industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of people, has also suffered from the government’s controversial decision last year to ban chemical fertilizers as a health measure. Though later repealed, this ban led to fertilizer shortages.

Tea production in the first quarter fell 15% year-on-year to its lowest level since 2009. The Sri Lanka Tea Board said dry weather predominated after the ban on shrubs that hadn’t gotten enough tea.

Combined with prolonged power outages, fuel shortages and runaway inflation, this has helped push the industry into “virtual collapse,” said Plantation Association spokesman Roshan Rajadurai.

The crisis has left Arulappan unable to repay the past two months on a series of high-yield loans she took out to start her business, pay off a family marriage and pay off other debts.

Food inflation is approaching 50% all year round, with transport being nearly 70% more expensive according to official figures, although in practice the figures are even higher.

The price of flour has doubled in the past year, putting many plantation workers out of reach of the coconut-infused flatbreads they munch on while picking tea.

“We had to make a decision to eat rice. But even that is very expensive now,” says Arulappan.

The cost of the two-mile bus ride to school for her two youngest children has also more than doubled in recent months, but the couple continues to pay for private lessons to ensure a better life for them.

“I never want to see my kids working on a plantation,” Michael said.

However, the crisis doomed the college plans of their eldest son, Akshon Ray.

Arulappan saved two years for a laptop that she promised the 22-year-old if he did well in his final exams.

At the top of the family’s metal cabinet is a folder containing the brochure of the university where he planned to study. But the financial burden was too heavy.

“You have to support the family,” said his son Arulappan just before he left to work in a broom factory in Colombo.

She doesn’t know where he lives yet.

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