Philippine leader threatens to fire officials in sugar mess

COLOMBO: Working in Colombo, Hashan Gunasekera has not gone home to see his family in Kandy since mid-April, as he has already given up on searching for gasoline to fuel his car.

A video production manager, Gunasekera, 32, used to drive three hours every week to spend Saturdays and Sundays at home, but for the past few months, he has not been able to drive, as his country — in the middle of the worst economic turmoil in memory — has run out of petrol.

Like many other middle-class Sri Lankans in the capital, he was forced to switch to a bicycle for his daily commutes.

“I have given up going home now,” Gunasekera told Arab News. “There is no use in even trying.”

The most basic bicycle he bought to reach his Colombo office cost him over 37,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($100) in June, but it had no gears and soon Gunasekera had to buy a new, slightly better one, which sold for 88,000 rupees — some three times more than before the crisis.

“A bike like this would have cost about 25,000 to 30,000 rupees last year,” he said.

Despite the soaring prices, the number of bikes on Colombo’s streets has increased manifold.

“The current market demand has greatly increased,” Sangeeth Suriyage, who runs Suriyage Bike Shop in Colombo, told Arab News, estimating that it may be even five times higher than last year.

“The market is able to meet a fair percentage of that demand,” he said, adding that the supply-demand imbalance has fueled informal sales, with bicycles sold for at least double the current market price. “There is a thriving black market operating through people that buy and resell at exorbitant costs.”

Desperate Colombo residents in need of an accessible mode of transport are still willing to fork out the extra expense.

Marini, an English teacher based in Colombo, said she spent 188,000 rupees for a bike for her nephew to be able to go to school. 

“This was really expensive,” she said. “But given the current situation I considered it an investment.”

But the price is not the only problem. Bicycles are now joining the list of items the country is running out of.

At a shop in Borella, the largest suburb in Colombo, bikes sold like hot cakes last month, but now demand has outstripped supply, with import restrictions slapped on almost all commodities as the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dried.

“We are running out of bicycles,” one of the Borella shop’s sellers told Arab News. “After fuel was completely stopped for the past month and a half or so, crowds are coming to (buy) bicycles for adults. Before this, people came to buy bicycles for children, mostly.”

While the island nation of 22 million is seeking a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to put its economy and public finances back on track, it is unlikely that the situation will get back to normal soon.

Some, like Hakiem Haniff, a 28-year-old marketeer who lives on the outskirts of Colombo, are trying to see positive aspects of having no choice but to take more exercise when transport options are limited.

But if it were to be long-term, he would like to see cycling infrastructure introduced in the city, which authorities promised earlier this year would be rolled out in Sri Lanka’s capital.

“If they want to take this thing seriously, they really need to invest in infrastructure so that more people will start cycling,” he said. “There’re no cycling lanes and it can be pretty crazy.”