02/14/2024, 10.17
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Colombo: VAT suffocates education, record increases for stationery and books

by Arundathie Abeysinghe

The 18% increase brings families to their knees, costs have become 'unsustainable and unaffordable'. Stationery imports also down, historic bookshops lay off staff. Book lists are halved, parents looking for discounts and forced to cut back on school supplies. The price of paper has risen by 300%.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The increase in value added tax (VAT) up to 18% risks bringing families to their knees, in particular due to the high costs in the education sector which appear to be increasingly "unsustainable and inaccessible" .

This is the alarm raised by parents worried about the future of their children and their educational path, with the price of books becoming increasingly higher, as well as stationery, backpacks and shoes.

In fact, many complain that they are no longer able to cover their expenses, so much so that many school-age children have not even started the year because their families were unable to cover purchases, from pens to textbooks.

Similarly, due to the increase in VAT and the decline in sales, imports of stationery have also decreased and several historic bookshops in Colombo, Kandy and the main cities have laid off staff.

Shopkeepers and parents speak of a difficult situation on all fronts, while purchases of even basic necessities have been reduced to a minimum and fallback mechanisms have been adopted - often negatively - to guarantee children's education. Sandya Lakmali, Anil Wijepala and Senthil Thurairajah, residents of Mattakkuliya, in the Colombo 15 area, tell AsiaNews that "parents work hard to give their children a high-level education, but most find it increasingly difficult to do so ”.

The greatest difficulties concern families in which there is only one working parent. "Many of us - they continue - have sacrificed food consumption" with only two meals a day "to cover expenses".

“In the past - they explain - we could buy the entire list of books in a single store, but now we visit several in search of discounts. Sometimes we are unable to buy some essential items because they are not accessible. Some benefactors offered to help us buy necessary school supplies. However, transport costs are also currently unsustainable,” while parents are under “severe financial pressure, as schools impose extra fees, known as 'fees', claiming they are for infrastructure maintenance.

A large number of students - conclude Sandya, Nihal and Senthil - have dropped out of school and many in the neighbourhood, especially those over the age of 14, work as workers on construction sites".

According to Gunapala Nandasena, owner of a stationery shop at the People's Park Complex in Pettah, in the past, people "provided a whole list of books and purchased all the items. Today, parents evaluate prices and reduce the quantity of goods purchased. This shift in consumer behavior has led to the book lists we typically receive being halved. Due to the decline in sales, I have had to lay off some of the staff because it is difficult to maintain the shop with the increase in electricity prices, the high cost of stationery and the workers themselves asking for a salary increase" to cope with the high cost of life.

“Sometimes - he concludes - I manage the shop alone, because the two elderly workers attend the clinics at the National Hospital in Colombo”.

Meanwhile, editors say thousands of manufacturing jobs in Sri Lanka will be lost and more stores will soon go bankrupt. They state that currently around 30% of bookstores have closed down.

One fact above all: before the current year there were no taxes on books, the introduction of which took place on January 1, 2024. The president of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers Association (Slbpa), Samantha Indeewara, speaks of an increase generalized which concerns all raw materials. For example, the price of paper has increased by 300% in recent years, while the island imports up to 90% of the elements necessary for the production and printing of a book.

All these elements - compared to a past of exemption - have now been subjected to VAT and other import duties.

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