As the sun rises over Colombo, vendors set up their stalls, hoping to sell enough goods — but they’re on the frontline of the worst economic crisis in Sri Lanka’s history.

Newspaper stalls are empty because Sri Lanka doesn’t have enough paper for printing.

Food sellers can’t get the ingredients they need for their products.

For some vendors, even going to the toilet during their shift is too expensive.

I Karunasinghe sells lottery tickets at his stall in Colombo. His earnings are not enough to support his family, given the rising cost of living in Sri Lanka.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

“Every time I go to the toilet, it’s 20 rupees, if I go five times, even that’s too much — it’s too expensive to pee these days,” says I Karunasinghe, who sells lottery tickets.

“I wasn’t unhappy with my income but, since inflation is so high, my spending capacity exceeds my earning capacity.”

Sri Lanka is facing a worsening economic crisis that has left its citizens struggling to get through tasks that were once not even worth thinking about.

Inflation hit 18.7 per cent in March. Australia, facing its own cost-of-living increases, hit 3.5 per cent inflation in the same month.

There are daily power outages, a critical shortage of life-saving medicine, and basic food staples such as rice and milk are hard to come by.

Food and fuel shortages have spread across much of the country.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

A perfect storm of problems led to this situation: multiple foreign loans from countries such as China, years of government borrowing, tax cuts and COVID-19.

Sri Lanka can’t pay to import basic supplies because of its huge debts.

Economists say a government decision last year to ban chemical fertiliser and make Sri Lanka the first country to farm organic-only was disastrous. It triggered inflation and crushed Sri Lankan exports of tea and rubber.

It leaves everyday Sri Lankans like Mr Karunasinghe with an impossible choice.

“My earnings aren’t enough to live off now. A cup of tea is 100 rupees. So, if I earn 2,000 rupees a day, then almost all of that is spent on feeding my family.”

Waiting from sunrise to sunset for precious fuel

A few hours after the street vendors start work, queues at fuel stations start building up.

Some people are trying to refuel their vehicles, while others wait up to 12 hours a day to fill up gas cylinders for cooking.

Some Sri Lankans are spending all day in line waiting to fill up gas cylinders they use for cooking.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

These conditions have had heartbreaking consequences.

Rani Chandra Pereira’s husband, Rechard, is one of at least seven people who have died in line while waiting for fuel.

“He used to stay in queues for hours to get fuel every day because his livelihood was driving a rickshaw,” she says.

“He went to the petrol shed to pump petrol, he waited there for one hour in the hot sun and once he pumped petrol he crossed the road and fell on the road.

“He was dead by the time he got to the hospital.”

Mrs Pereira says her husband had no previous illnesses. She blames the government for his death.

“The past way of life was much better, including the time of Sri Lanka’s civil war but, lately, everything has become a problem in the country,” she says.

In 2019, the World Bank ranked Sri Lanka as a middle-income nation. It had overcome a civil war and a terror attack to become the envy of South Asia with its major facilities.

So citizens largely aren’t used to the conditions they’re now living in.

But forecasts show the fuel shortage is only going to get worse: diesel could run out by April.

“I hope what happened to me, doesn’t happen to anyone else,”  Mrs Pereira says.

Rechard Pereira is one of two people, so far, who have died while waiting in line for fuel during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

Classes by candlelight, with no paper for students to write on

In the afternoon, a local primary school is trying to keep classes going without power or paper.

This month, Sri Lanka had to cancel school exams for millions of students because the country can’t afford to import paper.

“We have times where we lose electricity, but there’s no point scolding the government,” says Achala Samanamali Munusinghe, a grandmother of students at the school.

“We go ahead with our children’s education at least, in candlelight, and adjust accordingly so we don’t jeopardise the children’s education.”

Students at one of Colombo’s primary schools have continued lessons without power for fans and lights, and without paper to write on.(ABC News: Avani Dias)

The other essential service that’s deteriorating is the medical system. Sri Lanka’s peak medical body has been warning that a shortage of medicine will cause “catastrophic deaths” if it isn’t addressed soon.

Unlike many Sri Lankans, Ms Munusinghe isn’t angry. She’s just resigned to her new living conditions.

“Politically, we also voted for the present government but, obviously, it has gone wrong,” she says.

“We all need to get together and get a strategy for the future of the country and our children and develop the country as soon as possible.”

Achala Samanamali Munusinghe says she wants Sri Lankans to band together to find a solution to their widespread problems. (ABC News: Som Patidar)

With the economy hanging by a thread, political stability is crumbling too

Sri Lanka’s crisis is both economic and political.

Economists say that government mismanagement is partly to blame, but politicians can’t agree on how to move forward.

The country is controlled by the powerful Rajapaksa family, a dynasty that has been prominent in politics and the business sector for years.

Sri Lanka’s two most powerful positions — president and prime minister — are held by brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right), is Sri Lanka’s President, with his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is Prime Minister.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte/File)

Both leaders have said they are not responsible for the crisis.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said last month the major problem was a lack of earnings from tourism and foreign employment, thanks to the pandemic.

“Debts taken by previous governments have to be repaid, with interest. These problems did not occur due to a fault of mine or the government,” he said.

The entire cabinet has resigned and the government has lost members, sending it from a majority to a minority.

While the President offered to create a unity government with opposition members, they rejected the proposal and are now calling for fresh elections.

Considering the country’s economic crisis, it’s unclear if Sri Lanka can afford to go the polls early.

Opposition MP Harsha De Silva is pushing for change in Sri Lanka’s political system, to decentralise power concentrated within the office of president.(ABC News: Avani Dias)

“It’s going to cost a few billion rupees, but that is negligible in the scheme of things,” senior opposition MP Harsha De Silva says.

Sri Lanka’s constitution makes it basically impossible to remove a president from power unless they decide to stand down voluntarily.

Mr Rajapaksa is defying calls to step aside over the crisis and, while the opposition refuses to work with the current leaders, that leaves the country in a political stalemate.

Dr De Silva is trying to use this as an opportunity to change Sri Lanka’s political system and decentralise the power concentrated with its president.

“The power he needs to give up is the autocratic decision-making abilities he has,” Dr De Silva said.

“He appoints the justices of the Supreme Court, he appoints the commissioners of the bribery commission, he appoints all ministers, secretaries and senior officials. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Neither side is willing to budge but, while politicians argue, anger is rising on the streets.

Could this be the start of Asia’s Arab Spring?

Protesters have flocked to the streets to call for action.(ABC News: Avani Dias)

At the moment, about 5pm on any day of the week, Sri Lankans who’ve just knocked off work are taking to all corners of Colombo to protest.

And there have been more than 100 protests across the country since last week.

Writer Kanya D’Almeida says people like her are demanding change the only way they can.

“The demand on the streets, largely, is that the President needs to stand down. Until that happens, we can’t expect them to audit themselves, regulate themselves,” she says.

“Go home Gota” has become a rallying cry among those in the protest movement.(ABC News)

The slogan of these protests is “Go home Gota” and it’s a mantra that’s repeated at every rally, urging President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to stand aside.

Other rallies are heavy with emotion, with protesters chanting “they gave the people heartache and sadness”.

Demonstrations have largely been peaceful, but some protesters have tried to raid the Prime Minister’s house and police have used tear gas and water cannon to dispel crowds.

Police are using water cannon and tear gas on demonstrators at some rallies.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Every night, protesters continue chanting until the early hours of the morning, without any signs they’ll calm down before their demands are met.

They are spurred on by constant updates on the latest product or service that is getting more difficult to access. There are fears things could get much worse.

Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister has warned that the country would need about $3 billion in external assistance over the next six months to help restore essential items.

Despite government resistance to get help from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year, talks are now starting to negotiate a bailout.

Dr De Silva says countries such as Australia can help financially and put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to act.

Sri Lanka has requested Australia send 5,000 dairy cattle to help with the milk shortage and the Australian government has offered $2.5 million for immediate food relief.

“Australia can assert pressure to the sitting government that they need to sit together and find a solution to this problem,” Dr De Silva said.

“On the economic side … Australian investors could set up factories here, buy into existing tourist assets here.

“Colombo’s port city could see opportunities for tech investments or even renewable energy. There are so many opportunities here.”

The rallies carry on deep into the night.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Some analysts call the sustained and growing protest movement in Sri Lanka “Asia’s Arab Spring”, after the revolutionary movement in the Middle East that toppled governments and led to systemic change.

Young people make up a quarter of Sri Lanka’s population and they’re largely the ones on the streets demanding that level of change.

Even as the power goes out at night, protesters hope there’ll be light for her generation.

“What’s going to happen when this looting and plundering is over and we’re stuck here with the carcass of what’s being left behind?” Ms D’Almeida says.

“We can’t expect the institutions that got us here to get us out of this mess.”

Extracted in full form: Inside Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, people are dying in line for fuel – ABC News