As the country experiences its worst economic crisis and soaring inflation, sparking a wave of protests that culminated in the ousting of the president last week, Sri Lankans are buying less, eating less and working less.

“It’s very difficult to live, even a loaf of bread is expensive,” Pereira told AFP outside his modest home on Slave Island, a poor enclave in the capital Colombo.

“If we eat one meal, we skip another,” said the 74-year-old, whose family includes six children.

“As we don’t have a lot of money, so sometimes we give the fish to the kids,” he says, the adults “sticking to the sauce.”

Triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the financial difficulties have been exacerbated by government mismanagement, critics say.

– “The most terrible thing” –

“This exponential rise in prices is the most terrible thing I have ever faced,” says Mr. Peirera’s son, B.G. Rajitkumar, an electrical worker who hasn’t had a job for months.

“Food prices are rising every day,” he laments.

Food inflation in Sri Lanka reached 80.1% year on year in June, according to official figures.

According to the World Food Programme, almost five million people, or 22% of the population, need food aid, and more than five out of six families are skipping meals, eating less or buying lower quality food.

The main wholesale vegetable market in New Manning, Colombo was bustling on Sunday, with buyers, sellers and porters jostling with their sacks of produce.

But traders say business has more than halved since March.

“The prices of everything have more than doubled,” reports Mr. M. Mufeed, a trader, who estimates that his sales have fallen by 70%.

“Some unsold vegetables go in the trash and many poor people come to get them every day after the market closes,” he says.

But potatoes, onions and garlic continue to be imported from India, Pakistan and China, says import-export agent Ashley Jennycloss.

“The food supply is not a problem, but since there is no fuel, it makes things difficult and everything becomes expensive,” said Jeeva, another trader.

Some people walk long distances to come to this market early in the morning and buy small quantities of vegetables for their cooking at wholesale prices.

“I have no choice but to walk 10 kilometers to this market because the food is cheaper there than in the retail stores near my house,” says Howzy, 50.

At the headquarters of the protest movement that brought down ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former government worker Theodore Rajapakse teaches locals how to grow fast-growing vegetables on small plots of land near their homes.

“My country is in trouble,” he said, adding that he has taught his farming techniques to around 3,000 protesters since joining the protests.

But the prospects for immediate improvement are limited, and the outgoing president’s most likely successor, former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is hated by protesters who see him as an ally of Mr Rajapaksa.

On Slave Island, Mr. Pereira has little hope. “Gota is gone, but there is no candidate to get us out of this terrible situation,” he sighs.