Poverty, Aswesuma and food security



A file photo of a protest against alleged irregularities in the newly-introduced Aswesuma welfare programme

By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna (csweera@sltnet.lk)

Poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, such as food, shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, and education. Various criteria are used to measure poverty. The most commonly used is based on incomes. A person is considered poor if his or her income level falls below a minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is called the “poverty line”. What is necessary to satisfy the basic needs varies across countries, and societies. Therefore, the poverty line varies in time and place, and each country uses poverty lines which are appropriate to its level of development, societal norms and values. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the poverty line in Sri Lanka, in 2016, was 6,177. It increased to 7,913 in 2021 and to 13,777 in 2022. According to World Bank data, Sri Lanka’s poverty rate almost doubled from 13.1 to 25 percent between 2021 and 2022, This increase has added an additional 2.5 million people into poverty in 2022. Poverty is projected to remain around 25 percent in the next few years due to the multiple risks to households’ livelihoods. The negative economic outlook for 2023 and 2024 and adverse effects of revenue-mobilizing reforms could worsen poverty projections. A recovery and expansion of wage employment in the services and industry sectors will be the key to shift employment from lower-paying agricultural jobs and make a dent on poverty.

Since independence, various programmes to assist the poor have been implemented in Sri Lanka. The Food Ration scheme, which provided rice at a subsidized price, the Janasaviya programme, and the Samurdhi programme, etc., implemented by the government at different times, and numerous projects carried out by other organizations, such as the World Food Programme, were to alleviate poverty/reduce food insecurity among the poor. In these programmes/projects, households receiving low incomes were provided cash/food to increase their food supply. The latest poverty alleviation programme is Aswesuma which is to be implemented shortly. Under this programme, cash is to be distributed among four social categories, namely transitional, vulnerable, poor, and extremely poor. Additionally, the usual allowances for the differently-abled, elderly, and kidney patients will also be provided. Around 400,000 transitional beneficiaries will receive Rs.2,500.00 per month, until 31 December, 2023, 400,000 vulnerable beneficiaries will receive Rs.5,000.00 per month, until 31 March, 2024, 800,000 poor beneficiaries will receive Rs.8,500.00 per month, for three years and extremely poor beneficiaries will receive Rs.15,000.00 per month for three years, beginning 01 July, 2023. The criteria used to classify the poor into the four categories and the allowances to be paid are not known. However, some Samurdhi beneficiaries are reported to be left out from the Aswesuma programme.

Food Security

 Startling revelations have emerged, indicating that approximately 7.5 million people in Sri Lanka are currently grappling with a severe food crisis, according to a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The study has disclosed that among the 5.7 million families, residing in Sri Lanka, a staggering 33% are facing food insecurity. Consequently, this translates to approximately 7.5 million individuals across the country being directly impacted by this crisis. According to a special report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme’s crop and food security assessment mission to Sri Lanka, 17% of the population is in moderate acute food insecurity in Sri Lanka, especially in the Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces.

It is likely that the people affected by poverty are forced to face the consequences of food insecurity. Those in poor families are reducing their spending on health and education which have many undesirable repercussions. Rising food insecurity will also lead to increases in malnutrition and stunting among children, in addition to the undesirable effects on socioeconomic factors. According to the World Food Programme, 6.3 million people, or nearly 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, are “food insecure” and require humanitarian assistance. Of these, around 5.3 million people are either reducing meals or skipping meals, and at least 65,600 people are severely food insecure. This situation is likely to worsen due to high food prices, acute shortage of essential food, weak purchasing power, etc. Those who have been selected to receive Aswesuma payments are poor, or extremely poor, and they are likely to be not taking enough food in sufficient amounts to meet the daily energy requirement (2000-2500 Cal) which depends on age, level of physical activit, etc,

As defined in the World Food Summit, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. When people do not have enough financial resources, they and their families are unable to meet the nutrients requirement for an active and healthy life.

The government, perhaps, having realized the repercussions of food insecurity, initiated a programme to ensure that no citizen of the country should starve due to lack of food and no child should be a victim of malnutrition. The relevant mechanism is to be implemented through seven committees while the National Food Security and Nutrition Council will function under the chairmanship of the President. Food security in Sri Lanka has improved, marginally, according to the Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) report jointly carried out in February/March 2023 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Despite this positive trend, food insecurity remains high in certain districts, especially in Kilinochchi, Nuwara Eliya, Mannar, Batticaloa, Vavuniya, and Jaffna. The highest level of acute food insecurity (67%) is reported within the tea plantation communities in the estate sector and among daily wage labourers. However, in spite of several committees, there appears to be no substantial increase in food production in the country.

The Aswesuma programme which is expected to dole out Rs. 15,000 per month per family to extremely poor families, over a period of three years, will not make them escape from the undesirable effects of food insecurity, Hence, it is necessary that appropriate programmes are implemented to increase food supply, the earning capacity of the poor and also to reduce their expenditure on food so that they will not have to face the consequences of inadequate food intake.

Increasing food security

Food security is a major issue in Sri Lanka, where the government is trying to provide food for its people in the face of shortages, natural disasters and increasing prices of food commodities in the market due to many reasons. The problems become greater in areas with degraded lands. Recognizing that the relative income of farmers has been sliding down consistently, production, processing and distribution of foods should be encouraged. Off-farm rural employment, and essential facilities and infrastructure for primary health and education should be created with due emphasis on streamlining of input-output markets, agro-processing and value addition, particularly in horticulture and livestock sub-sector, and services geared towards the resource-poor farmers, including the landless, and women.

 Promoting cultivation of home gardens is one of the strategies to increase food security. Sri Lanka is a land of villages. There are around 14,000 of them. The total area under home gardens, in Sri Lanka, is around 300,00 hectares, representing about 25% of the total agricultural area operated by peasants. Appropriate programmes need to be implemented to increase the productivity of the home gardens. Numerous crops which supply carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals can be grown in home gardens which will have a positive impact on food security.

Most home gardens remain unproductive mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining suitable high yielding planting materials. Therefore, the development of plant nurseries, in areas easily accessible to the farmer, and provision of seeds, seedlings and other planting materials of vegetables, fruits, etc., will motivate householders to cultivate better high yielding crop varieties. Increasing the productivity of home gardens will have a considerable positive impact on food security. Various pests and diseases are likely to attack the crops cultivated in the home garden. In the attempts to achieve a high level of food security, it is necessary that these pests and diseases are controlled, using chemical, or biological pesticides. It is also necessary that fertilisers, such as compost, urea, potassium chloride and TSP, are applied at correct times. The cultivators need to be assisted by relevant authorities to obtain necessary inputs, such as seeds/planting material, fertilisers, etc. Prevention of post-harvest losses and efficient agro processing interventions should be emphasized so as to add value to the products that are grown/raised locally and link them with both domestic and international markets

Food Security is at maximum level when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to food. As indicated earlier, the local production of carbohydrates (rice and sugar), proteins (fish and milk) and fats and oils (edible oil, margarine and butter) is inadequate to meet the demand. Hence, these food items and several others are imported. The expenditure on food imports has increased considerably, during the present decade, and annually around Rs. 40 billion is spent on food imports. According to the Household Food Security Survey, conducted by the World Food Programme, in 2023, 67 percent of households in the estate sector are food insecure; The corresponding values for rural and urban areas are 53 and 43 percent, respectively.

Household food security depends mainly on their ability to secure enough food to ensure an adequate dietary intake for all of its members, at all times, for a healthy and an active life. Poverty and high food prices have reduced the food security at household level, especially in those where the incomes are low.

Hence, implementation of economically viable programmes to increase the level of local food production is essential, in addition to doling out cash among the poor for three years. Such programmes would provide employment to thousands of rural people and increase their incomes. Even if 50% of the present expenditure on food is spent locally, it would increase the rural income by nearly Rs. 20 billion, and significantly increase the purchasing power of the rural sector, thereby increasing food security, It will result in a considerable increase in the demand for high-elastic consumer items, thus generating further employment. The impact of it on the rural population and their poverty would be considerable.