By Rhea Mogul and Iqbal Athas, CNN
Sri Lanka’s economy has “completely collapsed,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Wednesday, as the crisis-hit nation faces an increasingly dire situation that has left millions struggling with fuel, electricity and food shortages.
“Our economy has faced a complete collapse,” Wickremesinghe told Sri Lanka’s Parliament, adding the government was seeking help from its global partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stabilize the economy.
But Wickremesinghe warned the island nation of 22 million was “facing a far more serious situation” beyond the shortages.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of its worst financial crisis in seven decades, after its foreign exchange reserves plummeted to record lows, with dollars running out to pay for essential imports including food, medicine and fuel.
In recent weeks, the government has taken drastic measures to cope with the crisis, including implementing a four-day work week for public sector workers to allow them time to grow their own crops. However, the measures are doing little to ease the struggles faced by many in the country.
In several major cities, including the commercial capital, Colombo, hundreds continue to queue for hours to buy fuel, sometimes clashing with police and the military as they wait.
Trains have reduced in frequency, forcing travelers to squeeze into compartments and even sit precariously on top of them as they commute to work.
Patients are unable to travel to hospitals due to the fuel shortage and food prices are soaring. Rice, a staple in the South Asian nation, has disappeared from shelves in many shops and supermarkets.
This week alone, 11 people have died waiting in queues for fuel, according to police officials.
Wickremesinghe, who took office days after violent protests forced his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, appeared to place the blame on the previous government for the country’s situation in his comments Wednesday.
“It is no easy task to revive a country with a completely collapsed economy, especially one that is dangerously low on foreign reserves,” he said. “If steps had at least been taken to slow down the collapse of the economy at the beginning, we would not be facing this difficult situation today.”
Last week, Sri Lanka’s power and energy minister told reporters the country had only enough fuel stock to last five days.
Sri Lanka has mainly been relying on neighboring India to remain afloat — it has received $4 billion in credit lines — but Wickremesinghe said that too might not be enough.
“We have requested more loan assistance from our Indian counterparts. But even India will not be able to continuously support us in this manner,” he said.
The next step, he said, was to strike a deal with the IMF.
“This is our only option. We must take this path. Our aim is to hold discussions with the IMF and arrive at an agreement to obtain an additional credit facility,” Wickremesinghe said.
He added Sri Lanka is currently in discussion with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the United States to “secure interim short-term loans” until it received IMF support.
A team of representatives from the US Department of the Treasury will arrive in Sri Lanka next week, he said.
In addition to this, Sri Lanka will seek assistance from China and Japan — two of its “main lending countries,” Wickremesinghe added.
“If we receive the IMF seal of approval, the world will once again trust us,” he said. “It will help us to secure loan assistance as well as low-interest loans from other countries in the world.”
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