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Poverty and malnutrition in Sri Lanka: Who is to blame?

“Thus it is incorrect to blame the present government for the prevalence of malnutrition. The United National Party is directly responsible for the poverty and the malnutrition that is so characteristic of Sri Lanka today.”

by Dr. Garvin Karunaratne

(July 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I refer to the recent paper written by Tisaranee Gunasekera blaming the incidence of malnutrition on the present government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. She states:

"Undermining the Future

"When 13.5% of children below five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition and at least 30% of children below five years of age suffer from anaemia, it signals a crisis far more devastating than the Tiger crisis.

When 19.6% of school children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 21% suffer from anaemia, it can cause far greater damage to the Lankan people than even the Tigers can. When 33.3% of adolescents suffer from acute malnutrition and of this almost 23% suffer from anaemia as well, it can undermine the Lankan economy far more effectively than Tiger bombs and Tiger guns can. When over 30% of pregnant mothers suffer from anaemia, the danger it poses to the future of Sri Lanka is infinitely graver than the danger posed by the Tigers’ separatist project.

"These latest figures by the Health Ministry need to be considered in conjunction with previous official figures on deteriorating nutritional levels in Sri Lanka. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2006/7 only half of Sri Lanka’s population receive the minimum daily calorie intake of 2,030. Jean-Yves Lequime, the deputy head of WFP in Colombo has warned that 'Sri Lanka has a significantly higher child underweight rate than would be expected on the basis of its [annual] per capita GDP [of US$1,599]… Indeed, Sri Lanka has a child underweight rate that may be three times as high as what would be expected from a country with Sri Lanka’s level of infant mortality.' According to the UNICEF 14 percent of children under five in Sri Lanka showed signs of wasting (acute underweight) and stunting (chronic underweight) while 29 percent of children younger than five were underweight for their age.

"These are figures to alarm any sensible government concerned about the future of the country it governs. They warn that our stock of human resources, our most valuable asset, is being depleted at a rate that is unaffordable, economically, politically and socially. They warn that unless immediate remedial measures are taken, a third or more of the next generation of Sri Lankans will be weak and malnourished, less capable of educational and physical achievements, more vulnerable to sicknesses. This is a danger far more comprehensive and permanent to the future of Sri Lanka than even the threat of the Tiger. (Incidentally this health and nutritional crisis must be infinitely worse now, given this year’s stratospheric rise in cost of living). If this trend towards social devastation is to be impeded, immediate action is necessary."

While agreeing with Tisaranee that malnutrition is prevalent in Sri Lanka today, I would tend to disagree that it is due to the present government.

Perhaps the statement I made at a seminar in London in 1992 would shed some light as to what happened in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka boasts of almost reaching self- sufficiency, quoting the low imports of rice. Perhaps Sri Lanka has become closer to self sufficiency in rice by the abolition of the Food Ration Scheme and by the substitution of the Food Stamp Scheme in its place. There are three methods of reaching self sufficiency. One method is by increased production. Another by reducing the population. A third is by reducing the purchasing power of the people, where the people due to the lack of money cannot buy food available in the market. The non -availability of food for the lowest segments of the population is evidenced in the increased malnutrition that has been recorded in the findings of the 1980/82 Nutritional Status Survey conducted by the US Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia. This survey established that there was a 64% increase in wasting in the rural sector over the 1975/76 survey. Wasting refers to the weight for height study. The height for age study indicates whether growth has been stunted. These are the two indicators for malnutrition. Sahn says that "the prevalence of concurrent wasting and stunting is also higher in 1980/82 than in the 1975/76 survey.(Sahn:1987:813) A Sen has reported that in the case of Sri Lanka the removal of rice subsidies has led to an increase in child mortality.(Sen:1987:172) What really happened is aptly explained by Sahn: "Calories intake is markedly higher in 1969/70 than in any other survey year. More interesting is the steady decline from one survey period to the next in calorie intake among lower income households, especially from the bottom three deciles of the population. This decline especially between the 1978/79 and 1981/82 Central Bank surveys occurred while the intake among higher income groups was generally rising.(Sahn:1987;815)

Thus On the whole the evidence is to the effect that poverty has increased in the period after 1977.(Karunaratne: How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka(Godages,2006):60)

I can make a definite statement that the increase in poverty and malnutrition in Sri Lanka is directly related to the abolition of the Rice Ration Scheme which provided rice at a very low price to people. At times the ration was free. Perhaps the answer to the rising cost of living today lies in establishing a Rice Ration Scheme.

Thus it is incorrect to blame the present government for the prevalence of malnutrition. The United National Party is directly responsible for the poverty and the malnutrition that is so characteristic of Sri Lanka today.

Today the price of a barrel of oil is at $ 139 and the present increase in the cost of living is directly related to that increase. The answer to the energy crisis is in our hands and we are capable of solving it easily within a short period of a year or two if only we are prepared to install a thousand wind turbines. The wind is there in tremendous force in Deniyaya, at Hayes, in Madugoda , at Hunnasgiriya, at Ohia, at Ramboda-all places where I have spent years in travel and stay. However it is perhaps a travesty of fate that the authorities are trying to install wind turbines at Hambantota and Kalpitiya where there is hardly any wind power. I lived two years at Hambantota. The coal and fuel lobby is that strong! Many countries like India, Germany and the USA are concentrating on wind turbines while our experts are trying to prove that wind turbines will not work by installing wind turbines at places where there is no wind. When will we ever learn? Set up the lost Land Development Department of the fifties and the thousand wind turbines can come up within six months. That is the record of work of my colleagues who worked 14 to 16 hours a day in the fifties!

Another reason for the high cost of living is the fact that the infrastructure that we had put in place to offer a high price to producers and simultaneously offer consumers goods at cheap rates- the Department for Development of Agricultural Marketing, the Paddy Purchasing Scheme and the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment- were all closed down during the regime of the United National Party that played poodle to the IMF teachings that have ruined our economy.

It is also important to note that the CWE was closed down during the period that Ranil Wickremasinghe was Prime Minister. Thus the cause for the poverty and malnutrition in Sri Lanka is not due to the present government. If anyone is to be blamed it is President Jayawardena who was taken for a ride by the IMF and none other than Ranil Wickremasinghe.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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