Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

The long lines at fuel stations have disappeared as have the frequent power outages; it’s almost as if the economic crisis is a thing of the past. For Colombo’s working class poor it is anything but. The last few years have brought upon crisis after crisis, leaving many families at breaking point struggling to put a meal, let alone three, on the table today.

Since 2020, Colombo Urban Lab has been exploring how access to grid infrastructure such as water, electricity, cooking fuel and transport impacts access to food and diets in working class communities in Colombo. This is part of a larger multi-country collaboration called the Living off Grid Food and Infrastructure Collaboration exploring this nexus across Asia and Africa. The fieldwork for the project started amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and since then we have worked closely with working class poor families, both households and vendors in Wanathamulla to explore how access to the grid impacts access to food. This timelinedepicts the shocks these communities have experienced since 2020 and the ways in which they have had to respond to multiple crises. When referring to shocks on the economy or impact to households, it’s very easy to consider them in isolation without understanding that actually they are all interconnected and having compounding effects on households.

Prior to the pandemic, families were able to have three diverse meals a day that featured meat, fish or eggs and fruit; they were using gas as their primary means of cooking fuel and their children were going to school daily. With the onset of the pandemic and prolonged periods of lockdown, many households lost access to income as they were mainly daily wage earners. At this time, many began to dip into their savings to find money to feed their families. They were also avoiding meat as it was unaffordable and with the X-Press Pearl disaster, they stopped eating fish too due to health concerns. However, over time we saw households eating less fish not because of health reasons alone but also because it was unaffordable.

The gas explosions in December 2022 left families looking for alternative energy sources for cooking. Women had to stand for hours to procure kerosene or switch to a wood fire stove although it would take two to three times longer to cook. These changes were taking place in a community that hardly had wood fire available in their vicinity prior to the pandemic. As a result, women were spending about three hours cooking, or procuring cooking fuel – all which impacted women’s time poverty. The infrastructure-food nexus that we were exploring presented itself very obviously at this time, as women were prioritising food that would cook fast and not take up too much cooking fuel. Items like manioc, jackfruit and chickpeas were removed from diets as families selected food that would cook quickly or could be eaten without accompaniments. This was the first instance of how we see infrastructure determining the food plate.

Around May 2022 families started to buy food daily on credit and even bought milk powder in smaller quantities. Vendors would react to changing demand patterns by breaking milk packets, distributing them into smaller containers and selling them in smaller quantities to match demand and purchasing abilities of communities. Milk that was bought for the household was given to the child as a priority with many parents foregoing milk in their tea.

In August 2022 came the first of a series of electricity tariff hikes of around 75%. As a result,  families started unplugging fridges and not using time saving cooking devices such as rice cookers amid electricity bills that were in arrears of about Rs 80,000-90,000. At this point, families were pawning jewellery, taking loans at high interest rates from loan sharks or undertaking a second job to pay their utility bills. For those living in the Urban Development Authority (UDA) built high rise housing complexes, they had no other option but to somehow find the money to pay their utility bills because if they didn’t the UDA would disconnect their water supply. With no other public infrastructure that they could access, unlike in the wattes they came from, they had no choice but to settle their arrears. The situation at this time was so dire that families were choosing to cook on woodfire stoves in the corridor of their high rise despite knowing the risks because they couldn’t afford gas, they couldn’t get kerosene due to shortages and they couldn’t afford electricity due to the tariff hikes so what choice did they have to feed their families?

The start of 2023 brought yet another electricity tariff hike of around 66%. By this point, families were eating less, many having one meal a day with meals mainly consisting of rice and a small quantity of vegetables, foregoing meat, fish and even eggs.

In addition, our research highlighted that although many children of working class poor families go to government schools, many of these schools don’t have a free midday meal programme. As such, teachers often demand that a nutritious meal be sent to school and, in some cases, even dictate a menu where on certain days of the week, certain food items have to be brought. Not only are these meals expensive to procure, they also consume a significant amount of energy to cook. Reports of teachers reprimanding children for not bringing nutritious food to school has resulted in parents opting to keep their children at home without sending them to school for fear that they will be scolded for not bringing nutritious food to school. Keeping in mind the high degree of learning loss during COVID-19 when children could not access remote education, further school absenteeism is likely to have long term impacts on their education.

Amid these compounding crises we see increased expenses, hikes in VAT on essential items like school books, medicine and a rise in utilities, all which impact these households disproportionately. Existing and new social security programmes such asaswesuma, are inherently problematic as they exclude many working class poor families who have access to assets and grid connections. As such these communities, some of which require it the most, are found facing these crises with limited state support.

The crisis is far from over. Compounding shocks have left families reducing the quantity and quality of meals, unplugging devices and even disconnecting from the grid, not sending children to school, pawning jewellery or taking high interest loans, foregoing essential medication and even undertaking a second job just to pay utilities or feed their family. These are just a few out of many methods families are using to survive, leaving many in precarious positions, facing generational poverty and severe long term nutritional impacts.

You can view an illustrated timeline of shocks and impacts explained above and the coping strategies families have had to use in the face of compounding crises.