How Sri Lanka’s economy went into a tailspin

Sri Lanka is suffering its worst economic crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948.

Months of lengthy blackouts and acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines have infuriated the public, with huge protests demanding the government’s resignation turning violent this week.

Eastern Eye reviews the origins of the snowballing economic calamity in the South Asian island nation:

– White elephants –

Sri Lanka has spent big on questionable infrastructure projects backed by Chinese loans that added to its already unsustainable debt.

In southern Hambantota district, a massive deep-sea port haemorrhaged money from the moment it began operations, losing $300 million in six years.

Nearby are other Chinese-backed extravagances: a huge conference centre, largely unused since it opened, and a $200 million airport that at one point was unable to earn enough money to pay its electricity bill.

The projects were pushed by the powerful Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics for much of the past two decades.

– Unsustainable tax cuts –

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015 partly due to a backlash against his government’s infrastructure drive, which was mired in graft claims.

His younger brother Gotabaya succeeded him four years later, promising economic relief and tough action on terrorism after the island’s deadly 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.

Days after taking office, Gotabaya appointed Mahinda prime minister and unveiled the biggest tax cuts in Sri Lanka’s history, worsening chronic budget deficits.

Ratings agencies soon downgraded the country out of concern that the public debt was spiralling out of control, making it harder for the government to secure new loans.

– Pandemic hit –

The tax cuts were spectacularly ill-timed: just a few months later, the coronavirus began spreading around the world.

International tourist arrivals dropped to zero and remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad dried up — two economic pillar