Sri Lanka’s heartbreaking plight

While the brutal attacks on Ukraine have been hogging media headlines, and rightly so, the unprecedented crisis in the tiny island country of Sri Lanka, with which we have such close ties, has failed to attract the world’s attention. Power cuts and blackouts for 15 hours, long, long queues for fuel, rising unemployment and a horrendous economic crisis, the worst in its history since its Independence in 1948, in that tiny, beautiful country, is really heartbreaking. So many of us have travelled several times to Sri Lanka, which had recovered so well from decades of ethnic strife and brutal militant activity that had turned Colombo’s prime roads akin to fortified war zones, complete with sandbagged roadblocks, and gun-wielding security personnel peering into cars, demanding to see your IDs. But after militancy was crushed, and the country limped back to normalcy and the tourists, specially the high-spending ones from the US and Europe, returned, Sri Lanka started thriving. Its pristine beaches, tropical climate and luxury hotels and resorts, and above all, polite and courteous people, were a big draw.

But then the Covid pandemic struck, sinking our entire world into a dark hell of disease and death, despair and desperation, locking up millions across the continents into their homes. As most businesses struggled to survive, the one industry that was devastated was the travel, tourism and hospitality industry. For almost 18 months, only a fraction of travellers ventured out into airports. One of the worst hit economies was that of Sri Lanka. Add to these Covid-related woes, including a crash in remittances of Sri Lankans working overseas, and the attacks on Ukraine sending fuel prices of petroleum products skyhigh, the tiny island nation’s economic woes soared. The administration’s abject failure to take swift remedial measures has taken a majority of Sri Lankans to levels of dismay never seen before.

As a massive civilian uprising against the present leadership gathers force, the situation on the ground is grim. There is negligible foreign exchange left to import fuel or life-saving drugs; people are starving and deaths have been reported from the long queues for fuel. Our tiny neighbour needs more than our prayers; India has definitely helped out, but surely, we can do more. Luckily the country is so small, that any dose of financial or any type of succour injected into it will make a difference. I have seen for myself the passion that Rotarians in Sri Lanka put into Rotary’s central mantra — Service Above Self. Some great community service projects done by Colombo’s Rotarians have been reported in these columns. It will be interesting to see what steps Rotary International, and its passionate members committed to humanitarian goals, take to lessen Sri Lanka’s pain.

You’ll read in this issue how one small club in Bengaluru, yes, just one single club, RC Bangalore Lakeside, has done over 200 community welfare projects this Rotary year, with three more months remaining. That is almost one service project every day of the year! This is the strength you have… belonging to an organisation which can inspire the president of just one club — and we have nearly 4,400 Rotary clubs in India alone — to help thousands of people in his community. Imagine the muscle power of 4,000-plus clubs. Governments do their bit, but when people open out their hearts and minds, that’s when magic and miracles happen.

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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