‘Samaja Dansela’ making a difference

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The most serious tragedy of the economic crisis is the scores of people unable to procure their daily meals. Health professionals warn that pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children are suffering from malnutrition because they cannot get a balanced meal owing to the rapid increase in food prices. However, by reviving humanity and unity among us, it is possible to find some solution to this issue.

Matha Foundation decided to launch the ‘Samaja Dansela’ initiative to provide one meal a day for people from underprivileged families who need a nutritious meal. Under this initiative’s pilot project, in early July, steps were taken to provide dinner for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children below the age of five from selected underprivileged families in the Obesekarapura Grama Niladhari Division in Rajagiriya. This project takes place at the Sadaham Sewana Temple.

Based on the success and experiences of this project, attention has been paid to launch more ‘Samaja Dansela’ programmes at a number of temples throughout the country and the necessary steps are being taken at present. The Matha Foundation encourages groups and institutions who are in a position to undertake these types of programmes to lend a helping hand to fellow citizens affected by the prevailing economic crisis. 

“Everyone around the country can do this”

Addressing the Media following a Samaja Dansela at the Sadaham Sewana Temple on 27 July, Matha Foundation founder Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera pointed out that even though he resides in Colombo, there are a lot of underprivileged families who need assistance, and named Obesekarapura, Maligawatte, Kolonnawa and Sedawatte as some surrounding areas where such groups live.

“They do not even have a house. Husbands and fathers of those families are engaged in labour work to make ends meet. In this society, the present situation has turned into a massive tragedy, because it is difficult for them to find their daily meal. They are unable to do their jobs,” the Thera shed some light on the prevailing situation.

He revealed that the inability to procure nutritious food has become a huge challenge, especially for pregnant women, and that it has resulted in them not meeting various health indicators. Due to lack of nutritious food, the Thera noted, breastfeeding mothers are unable to produce adequate milk to feed their babies.

“I thought about what can be done about this situation, and contacted some individuals. However, they responded that they too are going through similar difficult situations and even those who are known to be wealthy said the same. I took a decision to start this initiative and I thought someone will see this and join later. I did this for three to four days. I sought support from those working at the fish market and they helped, and those working in the vegetable market also came forward to help. As I was continuing this programme, I received more support. In fact, I have been doing this for 15 days now. People eat here every day, and it is a reason for self-satisfaction. Everyone around the country can do this, and I have done this.”

Operational difficulties

According to the Thera, there are, however, unavoidable challenges that they have to go through.

“There are challenges like power outages and difficulties in procuring firewood in Colombo. We installed a cooker, for which we had to spend over Rs 100,000. It helps us cook for 200-300 people and it is smokeless. To use that, we need coconut shell charcoal. What we did was ask people who eat here to bring coconut shells, which they did. It helped us overcome that challenge. It is inexpensive and is eco-friendly. What is more, when we obtain coconut shell charcoal, it provides a livelihood for people (who sell coconut shells). We need USD 35 to import cooking gas. However, this stove is a good solution to cooking gas queues. This should also be mentioned as a step we took to overcome the challenges we faced.”

The Thera explained how he encouraged more parties, particularly Buddhist monks, to support this initiative, and how it was a success. He said that around 20-30 monks came forward to support him.

It is also a support network…

“We start this at 6 p.m. every day. Preparation of food is carried out by residents of the area, and they play various roles in this process. People are getting used to it and we teach how to consume food in a disciplined manner. At the same time, we make sure that everyone – including those who are not Buddhists, pregnant mothers, and even drug users – have a place.”

In addition, the Thera noted that out of around 3,000 families, around 1,000 have members who are addicted to drugs and that pregnant women of those families have raised concerns about the same.

“This is a massive tragedy,” the Thera opined, adding that harassment against women in such families are at an alarming level.

The Thera revealed that even though he tried to bring (to the temple) and rehabilitate a few drug users, such attempts were unsuccessful as they run away due to their addiction. However, according to the Thera, more organised discussions are to be held soon to discuss the issue.

With regard to the economic crisis, the Thera said: “We should go beyond merely seeking assistance from the World Bank (WB) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and seek alternatives to strengthen the people. We should get them to join collective endeavours. Even though people are facing hunger, this is a good experience that prompted us to start looking for a solution to these challenges.”

Discussing the financial aspects of this initiative, the Thera said that when food is prepared collectively, the cost is significantly low. He added that in the long run, it would be possible to run this programme without external funding.

Adding that all 225 MPs as well as religious communities are in a position to extend their help, the Thera emphasised, “Look at our experience. When a nation collapses due to an economic crisis, instead of begging for help from external parties, people should be strengthened to rise again without any help. Our politicians are clueless, and they focus on getting more loans or advices from the IMF.”

Furthermore, the Thera invited everyone to join this endeavour, adding that these types of collective efforts can indirectly help mitigate various social issues.

Inability to procure nutritious food for pregnant women is a big issue that will push the unborn generation into the deep end while risking the lives of mothers as well. Though few organisations such as the Matha Foundation has extended their help, for at least a few areas, the problem of maternal nutrition is yet to be addressed by the State, until then, every second another mother is growing weaker with her unborn baby.

By Nabiya Vaffoor