Rice is Sri Lanka’s staple food and a key energy source for its people. However, Colombo’s retail rice prices Year-on-Year (YoY) have increased by between 51.1-114.4 per cent (Rs 76.96-116.13) to be between Rs 227.56-217.64 a kilo by last month end, hitting the poor the hardest, recent Census and Statistics Department (CSD) data showed.
The increase in rice prices is due to poor policies by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who banned chemical fertiliser imports last year. This ban was subsequently revoked, but too late to reverse the damage caused to the recently harvested Maha 2021-22 crops, while extending this damage to the forthcoming Yala 2022 harvest as well.
Consequently, Sri Lanka has to depend on rice imports to feed its people, made worse by the fact that the exchange rate YoY to yesterday has depreciated between 80.23-82.20 per cent (Rs 160.25-164.75) to Rs 360/365 to the US dollar in two-way quotes, thereby driving imported food prices, including rice, higher. Subsequently, the price of a loaf of bread, another high energy source of food, has increased by 147.34 per cent (Rs 84.72) to Rs 147.34 a loaf.
These developments have to be looked at in the context where the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a publication titled ‘Childhood Malnutrition in Sri Lanka: A Roadmap for the Last Mile 2019’ to quote excerpts said, “According to Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2016, the prevalence of stunting in children aged less than five years was 17.3 per cent, with its severe form at four per cent. Examination of the rates of stunting by age categories indicate that much of it occurs during the first 1,000 days of life: ‘the critical window of opportunity for optimum growth.’
Wasting (15.1 per cent) and severe wasting (three per cent), where the high prevalence of wasting is of very high public health significance,” the report said. “The prevalence of severe acute malnutrition and moderate acute malnutrition in children under the age of five years was three and 12.1 per cent. The 2016 DHS reported that one in five children below the age of five years was underweight (20.5 per cent), also of high public health significance.
Apart from protein energy malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies were found in children under five years of age. The National Nutrition and Micronutrient Survey 2012 reported that nearly one third of the children aged 6-59 months were iron deficient. The prevalence of anaemia in children aged 6-59 months was 15.1 per cent, with a wide inter-district variation. Zinc deficiency (5.1 per cent) and calcium deficiency (47.6 per cent) were also reported in these children,” it said.
In regard to the above, WHO said the richest 20 per cent in Sri Lanka enjoy more than half the total household income of the country, while the poorest 10 per cent enjoy only 1.8 per cent of total household income or less.
Meanwhile, among other alarming statistics disclosed by CSD in the review one year period showed that the price of Mysore dhal, a key source of vegetable protein, has increased by 160.1-197.6 per cent (Rs 382.68-371.83) to be between Rs 621.67-560 a kg and a 425 g tinned fish, a key source of animal protein for the poor and the middle classes has increased by 44.95 per cent (Rs 138.84) to
Rs 447.69. Like increases or more have been witnessed in other key food items such as eggs, milk, vegetables, chicken and dried fish.
What the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson had to say about hunger is true to Sri Lanka. She said, “We need to look at the world through the eyes of a mother, the head of a poor household, a smallholder farmer, and a poor slum dweller to really understand the subtle and interlinked causes of hunger. In this way, problems that seemed technical, become people’s problems and as a result our response becomes more social, more human. I think this could be another mindset shift in our efforts to tackle hunger and undernutrition.”
Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Rajapaksa need an urgent change in their mindsets and swallowing their pride, should reach out to the international community to save the masses from starvation.