(Bloomberg) -- Sri Lanka’s economy fell back into contraction last quarter as the country battled its worst economic problems since independence, with emergency aid to stabilize the island nation proving elusive.

Gross domestic product declined 1.6% in the quarter ended March from a year earlier, the Department of Census and Statistics said in a statement on Tuesday. That’s shallower than a 3.6% contraction seen by economists in a Bloomberg survey and compares with a revised 2% expansion in the previous quarter.

The contraction likely marks the beginning of a painful and long recession for the country, whose Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week said the economy had “completely collapsed.” The crisis follows years of debt-fueled growth and populist fiscal policies, with the Covid-19 pandemic’s hit to the dollar-earning tourism industry serving as the last straw.

Absence of foreign exchange to pay for import of food to fuel led to red-hot inflation, the fastest in Asia, triggering protests against the government led by the Rajapaksa clan that eventually led to the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as premier. While the months-long protests hurt business activity in parts of the country, the government on Monday imposed new curbs, which includes a call to residents to stay home until July 10 to conserve fuel. 

That will depress activity further, while raising the risk of more unrest given lingering shortages of essential goods.

Sri Lanka is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for aid to tide over the crisis, with at least $6 billion needed in the coming months to prop up reserves, pay for ballooning import bills and stabilize the local currency. The central bank has raised interest rates by 800 basis points since the beginning of the year to combat price gains that touched 39%.

Other details from the GDP report include:

  • For the first quarter, the services sector grew 0.7% from a year earlier
  • Industrial production slipped 4.7% and agriculture output contracted 6.8%

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