© Reuters. Lasanda Dipthey, 43, an auto rickshaw driver for the local PickMe app, sits in her rickshaw while waiting in line to buy petrol at a gas station on the outskirts of Junapula town in the early hours of the morning from Colombo, Sri
by Uditha Jayasinghe
JONAPALA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Lasanda Dipthy, a 43-year-old Sri Lankan woman, plans her day around gas queues.
As a rickshaw driver on the outskirts of the commercial capital Colombo, she pays close attention to the fuel gauge on her sky blue tricycle before taking on a job to make sure she has enough gas.
When the needle is almost empty, she joins the queue in front of a gas station. Sometimes you wait all night for gas, and when you get it, it costs two and a half times more than it did eight months ago.
Dipthy is one of millions of Sri Lankans grappling with hyperinflation, low incomes and a shortage of everything from fuel to medicine as the country grapples with its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
It is rare to see a female rickshaw driver working with cars on an island of 22 million people off the southern coast of India.
But it’s a job that Deepthi has been doing for the past seven years to support her family of five using the local ride-sharing app PickMe.
Since the financial crisis, it has been struggling to find enough gas and make enough money as trips dwindle and inflation soared to more than 30% year over year.
Her monthly income of around 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($138) started declining from January and is now less than half her previous income.
“I spend more time queuing for gas than anything else,” Debethy said. “Sometimes I line up at around 3pm but don’t get fuel until about 12 hours later.
“Sometimes I got to the front of the queue just because I ran out of gas,” she added while over tea in her tiny two-bedroom rental home in Jonapola, a small town on the outskirts of Colombo, cooking. . She lives with her mother and three younger siblings.
She separated from her husband and has a married daughter.
In mid-May, Debethe said she spent two and a half days waiting for gasoline with the help of one of her siblings.
She said, “I have no words to describe how awful it is. Sometimes I don’t feel safe at night but there’s nothing else to do.”
In a now-familiar routine, she changed her clothes one morning, filled a water bottle, wiped her motorized carriage, and lit an incense stick to invoke divine blessings before getting into the car.
As on most days, their job is to find gasoline, whose prices have risen 259% since October 2021, when the government cut subsidies in an effort to stabilize the ailing economy.
The roots of the current crisis in Sri Lanka lie in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated the lucrative tourism industry and undermined remittances from foreign workers, and the populist tax cuts enacted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.
Angry at widespread shortages and the powerful Rajapaksa family’s accusations of misusing the economy, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Sri Lanka in recent months in mostly peaceful demonstrations.
New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was also appointed as the country’s finance minister last week, plans to present a budget within six weeks that would cut spending “to the limit” and turn it into a two-year social programme.
His policies are also expected to catalyze negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a much-needed loan package.
But Debethy is disappointed.
The car she bought with her savings last year had to be sold after she failed to make her rental payments.
The second auto rickshaw, usually driven by one of her siblings, needs repair, which the family cannot afford. She has more than 100,000 rupees in arrears on loan payments for a plot of land she bought before the pandemic.
Debethy also wants to visit her three-month-old granddaughter, but isn’t sure how to travel the 170 kilometers (105 miles) to the coastal city of Matara, where her nurse daughter lives.
“I can barely provide enough rice and vegetables for my family,” she said. “I can’t find any medicine my mom needs. How will we live next month? I don’t know what our future will look like.”