ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
Columns - The Sunday Times Economic Analysis  

Food beyond the reach of the poor

By the Economist

It was a revealing experience. The village women were gathered to discuss the progress of their microfinance programme. They appeared inattentive to the remarks of their sponsor. They did not respond to the questions asked by him. Then the silence was broken and one of the women asked a question that appeared strange to the sponsor. “Sir what can we eat?” And another joined in, “rice is so expensive, dhal is Rs. 170 a kilo, vegetables are beyond our reach and we can’t even eat rice and pol sambol as coconuts are sixty rupees.” This is not what he came to discuss.

He wanted to discuss the progress of their self-employment projects financed by his microfinance programme. He knew of the difficulties they faced but had not heard of them in such a poignant manner. The microfinance programme appeared to diminish its contribution to the livelihoods of these people. Compelled to respond, he said in somewhat a firm voice, “No, no it is not that expensive. I bought rice at Rs. 55 a kilo at the supermarket and coconuts near the courts at Rs. 40.” He could not contradict the price of dhal for which he himself had paid Rs. 170. It struck him that the poor are probably paying more for their food at the outlets where they buy. In fact, the supermarket salesgirl had said that they were raising the price of rice as the controlled price was now Rs. 65.

The food price situation appears quite varied in the country. Just as much as there are varied prices in the same town or city, there are wide differences in the availability of rice in particular. Some shops do not sell rice anymore claiming they can’t, at the stipulated controlled price. In others it is available at Rs. 65 and sometimes even less. The controlling of the rice price has aggravated the situation and scarcities have emerged, particularly in Colombo. There are some market imperfections and contradictions, yet the bare fact is that the prices of basic food items have risen sharply. The government’s decision to not release the imported rice from Myanmar to the market but use it as a buffer stock of 150,000 metric tons has a merit for the rice market in the long run. Yet, the current situation may warrant a decision change to release these to make the market more competitive.

The food inflation that we are witnessing is dangerous. A large proportion of the people will not be able to obtain their basic food needs. Malnutrition will rise to even higher proportions than at present and bring about starvation and deadly diseases. No longer is the World Bank definition of poverty being below one US dollar a realistic measure. With the real incomes of people falling the numbers in poverty have surely increased, perhaps doubled. The emerging situation is reminiscent of the 1970’s when food was scarce even for the affluent. We had thought that that was an era of the past till suddenly and unexpectedly rising food prices struck us badly. It is the poor we must be concerned about, for their access to food has been seriously eroded.

Amartaya Sen the authority on hunger, famines and poverty described situations such as these as one where the poor have no access to food. He tells the compelling story of the Bengal famine where over one and a half million people died of famine and yet he who lived in Calcutta at the time knew no one who had inadequate food. This is what stimulated Sen’s thinking to propound the idea of entitlements rather than national food shortages to be at the core of the problem of starvation. It is the lack of “entitlements” that is at the core of the problem. To put the same idea simply it is the lack of incomes that create a problem of inadequate food for the poor. The poor are unable to access their requirements of food at the prevailing high prices with their low incomes. This is the heart of the horrendous problem we are facing.

We can agree that the government is not to be blamed for this situation even though its response could be questioned. The food crisis is a result of many factors that we discussed before in these columns. We have had to face a shortfall in domestic production due to floods in the country at a time of global shortages of grains and increased demand for food. The price increases were therefore inevitable. Dwelling on the reasons for the problem gets us nowhere. It is to the solutions that our minds must be focussed. It is here that the weak macro economic conditions are a serious hindrance to finding a solution. Bluntly, the government is in no position financially to commence a large scale programme of state intervention to save the poor from starvation. Additionally, the weaknesses in our administration make it impractical to design and implement a well targeted food subsidy programme for the poor and the needy.

A huge problem faced in designing an intervention programme is the inability to identify the needy and target the food to them. This is especially so as we are in a culture where everyone tries to get hold of anything given free. This appears to have been a cultural trait from long ago for there is a Sinhala saying that ‘people would take anything given free even a cold’. This was reinforced by the country’s welfare programmes of the past. The rice ration scheme had the merit of reaching everyone through a system and network that was quite effective. But that programme was too expensive as it gave every person, deserving or not the basic subsidised items. Samurdhi recipients are known to have a large proportion of those not deserving of the assistance chosen on the basis of other criteria.

It is indeed difficult to design and implement such a programme. One of the options in this situation is for a shift of consumption from rice and wheat to other foods like yams, jak, breadfruit, manioc, locally grown millets. Programmes to transport and market these would assist in reducing hunger and starvation.

Every effort must be made to ensure cheaper foods for the poor. Programmes must be designed to reach the poor and ensure adequate food for them. Community, religious and social service organisations can play a useful role in getting food to people. We can also hope that this is an acute problem for only a short period as there are signs that the Yala harvest may be a good one owing to the rains at the time of cultivation. However, the country does have a core problem of poverty and inadequate nutrition that requires to be addressed.

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