Sri Lankan tea pickers' dreams shattered by crisis


Every day Arulappan Ideijody heads out to work on a lush tea plantation in Sri Lanka.

The emerald green hills of Bogawantalawa, east of the commercial capital Colombo, stretch for miles around.

After a month of picking more than 40 pounds of tea leaves, Arulappan and her husband, fellow picker Michael Colin, receive about 30,000 rupees.

Their earnings must support the couple's three children and her elderly mother-in-law.

But after the island nation devalued its currency, that now works out at just 80 dollars, and Arulappan says they're struggling:

“What we earn is not enough to eat, let alone for other expenses. We can only eat one meal. I get paid 900 rupees ($2.55) every day I work. We go to work after having a cup of tea. Sugar prices have gone up. If we are to eat a piece of roti (Indian flatbread), (we have to contend with) the price of wheat flour having gone up, the price of rice having gone up. Everything has gone up in price.”

Arulappan is just one of millions of Sri Lankans reeling from the island's worst economic crisis in decades.

Rampant inflation and shortages of essentials, such as food and medicine, have sparked weeks of protests that have sometimes turned violent.

Critically short of foreign currency due to a pandemic-induced drop in tourism,

Sri Lanka has turned to the IMF for an emergency bailout.

On the ground, it's plantation workers like Arulappan who have been hardest hit.

Owning no land to provide a cushion against the soaring food prices and facing debts, the crisis has doomed the family's hopes for the future.

The cost of the two kilometre bus ride to school for the two younger children has more than doubled.

And the eldest son has abandoned plans to go to university.

“We don’t have money. So, we have not been able to buy school books. We couldn’t put covers on books. It costs 200 rupees ($0.57) for the child to go to school and back by bus. We have to pay class fees. Things are difficult.”

The tea industry, which supports hundreds of thousands of people, also suffered from a controversial government decision last year to ban chemical fertilisers as a health measure.

Though later reversed, the ban has left fertilizers in short supply.

Arulappan reflects wistfully that she will probably have to work the whole time to survive, even at night.