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IMF in Sri Lanka to discuss worsening economic crisis

COLOMBO (AFP) – An International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation was in Sri Lanka yesterday for talks on the island’s worsening economic crisis, with the public suffering through months of food, fuel and medicine shortages.

A lack of foreign currency has left traders unable to pay for vital imports in what authorities concede is the South Asian nation’s worst financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Long queues outside gas stations and rolling blackouts have become the norm, while record inflation has caused serious hardship among the island’s 22 million people by repeatedly pushing up the cost of groceries, transport and pharmaceuticals.

A senior staffer from the IMF “will hold talks” with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, a spokesman for the leader told AFP.

Sri Lanka’s government is divided on seeking a bailout, but the international lender said it was “ready to discuss options if requested” in yesterday’s statement.

The IMF warned earlier this month that the country’s USD51 billion foreign debt was “unsustainable”, and called for a currency devaluation and higher taxes to revive its almost bankrupt economy.

Sri Lanka last week allowed the rupee to float, a move that saw the currency nosedive 25 per cent against the dollar and triggered a fresh wave of price increases.

Fuel costs have risen by nearly 80 per cent since early February while food prices rose by a quarter according to January figures.

The coronavirus pandemic hammered the South Asian island’s tourism sector – a key foreign exchange earner.

Sri Lanka needs nearly USD7 billion to service its foreign debt this year, but the country’s external reserves at the end of January were just over USD2 billion – enough to finance one month of imports.