As the dust rises with the upcoming parliamentary elections, there is a tendency for the real issues that burden the people to get blurred by those in the campaign trail.
On the eve of the Presidential election, we wrote in this space how a boatman in Weerawila in the deep south probably embodied what many ordinary voters in this country felt about elections. The candidates come begging for their vote at election time, "but who will look after us thereafter" he had asked our reporters in the field.
Three recent incidents may have escaped the attention of the powers-that-be, all of whom are neck deep in campaigning. Two of them relate to poor mothers abandoning their children by throwing them into rivers; the other, of a mother pleading with a magistrate to take custody of her child due to poverty at home.
Child Care authorities say that the reasons for such incidents can be attributed to lack of family planning and low education levels of women, but they also point out the lack of a development and economic policy in the Government's plans targeting this particular category of people - poverty-stricken, forgotten and in hopeless situations. And there are thousands in Sri Lanka facing such difficulties.
Currently, a worthwhile social security safety net mechanism exists in the Samurdhi programme, earlier called the Janasaviya programme of President R. Premadasa. Despite abuses in this programme with many people not entitled to benefits obtaining relief through corrupt methods at village-level, Samurdhi had made a direct impact on reducing poverty- from 28 per cent to 15 per cent by the end of 2007.
According to the World Bank, as much as 23 per cent of Sri Lankans are poor. Most of them are in the rural areas where prospective candidates are vying for representation in the next Parliament, and political parties are asking for simple majorities to change the Government, and two-third majorities to change the world.
Malnourishment figures are pathetic for a country that politicians and senior bureaucrats boast has become a 'middle income earning country'. A recent study by local university researchers presented at the annual sessions of the Population Association of Sri Lanka (Feb. 2010), revealed that in a sample of 330 mothers in the Kalubowila, Nagoda, Matara, Ratnapura and Balangoda hospitals, 38 percent of the children born were not the proper size, and 17 percent not the right weight at birth.
In the plantations, despite a family of four earning an income of Rs. 500 a day, poverty incidence has significantly increased in recent years. The Census and Statistics Department goes as far as saying that poverty incidence in the plantations is as much as four times that in urban areas. In the North, where the LTTE held thousands of people as human shields, the whole world saw 'walking sticks' emerging after the Army liberated them.
While indeed there has been a resurgence of the economy under this Government when compared to the lost 11 years under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga (apart from a brief interlude when the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government took office and the economy was not permitted to 'take-off' due to the premature dissolution of Parliament in 2004), there is much more to be done than showcasing infrastructural projects as economic successes.
The upgrading into a 'middle income earning country' comes at a heavy price. Much of the income comes from the sweat, toil and tears of Sri Lankan housemaids in the inhospitable West Asian countries, the workers in the plantations and the garment industries. It is mostly the women of Sri Lanka that carry this burden.
The Government's election manifesto pledges to take the per capita income of an average Sri Lankan to US dollars Four Thousand (US$ 4000) by 2015 -- double what it claims is the per capita income now, i.e. US$ 2000 or Rs. 226,000. In layman's words this is to say that every Sri Lankan earns Rs. 226,000 per year, i.e. Rs. 18,000 per month. In a family of five, which could include children, this should mean that the total income of that family should be Rs.90,000 per month. How many families in Sri Lanka earn this magical figure?
On the other hand, the UN says that some 45 per cent of Sri Lankans earn less than US$ 2 (Rs. 226) per day; either these statistics don't tally or the UN is in yet another conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Or does this underscore a huge disparity and inequality in wealth distribution? There seems to be a mismatch between the country's elevation to 'middle income earning' status and the prevailing levels of poverty and malnourishment.
Borrowings from international commercial banks and tranches from the IMF not only are sustaining foreign reserves but giving a false sense of security. Critics say that every Sri Lankan family of five that is supposed to have a per capita monthly income of Rs. 90,000 is in debt to the tune of Rs. 800,000 plus according to the country's debt figures.
If corrective measures are not taken to improve the basics of the economy, economists warn of an Argentina-like situation of 2002, or like what happened to Mexico earlier. They kept borrowing and sexed up their economies to get more loans until they couldn't meet the debt repayments. This week, Greece was in trouble with its public debt rising to 124 per cent of GDP and emergency austerity measures leading to street protests. Fortunately, Greece has rich friends - France and Germany with bailout packages which promise aid from the IMF and the Eurozone.
Given Sri Lanka's hara-kiri diplomacy with the West, such generosity may not be forthcoming. No doubt, the West's largesse comes with strings attached and ulterior motives, but which foreign country that Sri Lanka now sees as a 'friend' doesn't entertain ulterior motives?
So, let's have less of this bragging that we have propelled ourselves to greater heights until we can ensure that those poverty and malnourishment indicators can first be put right.