Feed the Hungry
“What is the point of talking of democracy when your people are hungry?”
That was the reply given by the then TASS Correspondent in Sri Lanka to a Sri Lankan journalist who was extolling the virtues of democracy in the Dudley Senanayake Government of 1965-70.
More than 50 years later the words of the TASS Correspondent in Colombo still ring true.
SLPP MP and actress Geetha Kumarasinghe gave a new twist to this statement when she said in Parliament on Saturday, “Before spending a colossal amount to construct and carpet roads, the Government should do something to ensure that people in the country have three square meals a day.” (Yesterday’s ‘Ceylon Today’)
This is in the context that ‘Appropriation Bill 2022’ now being debated in Parliament has allocated a sum of Rs 250.19 billion to the Highways Ministry, the fourth highest expenditure head in Budget 2022, equivalent to 9.99 per cent of the value of the total Appropriation Bill presented in Parliament. The envisaged 2022 Budget spend is 2.50535 trillion.
Meanwhile, the Samurdhi State Ministry, with an allocation of Rs 75.03 billion, equivalent to 2.99 per cent of the total envisaged 2022 budgetary expenditure was at ninth position. ‘Samurdhi’, a State Ministry, created to look into the welfare of the poor, unlike ‘Highways,’ enjoys no Cabinet rank.
Kumarasinghe speaking further, to quote excerpts, said, “Poor people are suffering so much at the moment and could only afford one meal a day. Something should be done to eradicate hunger. We have to help the people to have three proper meals a day.”
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his Presidential Election Manifesto of 2019 with reference to the ‘cost of living’ to quote excerpts said, “What has to be done about the cost of living is to cease giving false promises to people and to try to understand the prevailing reality in this regard. Speedy implementation of our economic policies and the immediate impacts of proposed tax reductions will help reduce the cost of living. Action will be taken to stabilise the reduction of prices of essential commodities resulting from the reduction in taxes.”
But according to SLPP Government MP Kumarasinghe, the contrary appears to have had happened.
Complementing this Government MP’s views, the World Bank (WB) recently said that while the official poverty percentage places the number of Sri Lanka’s poor at 4.1 per cent of the total population, however, the WB places this number at a higher figure of 11.7 per cent, with 500,000 of the country’s population added on to the poverty list last year due to the ill-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sri Lanka’s current low poverty line of Rs 4,166 per person, per mensem does not adequately represent a minimum acceptable standard of living for the poor,” the WB said. Therefore, a revision of the national poverty line is needed, it added.
The poverty line in 2016 was Rs 4,166 per person per month, or Rs 137 per person per day, the WB said. “To put this number in perspective, a family of four with one breadwinner who makes only Rs 20,000 per month is unlikely to be considered poor according to the national poverty line,” the WB said.
Meanwhile, the proposed expenditure for the Samurdhi State Ministry, Budget 2022 over Budget 2021 has been slashed by 4.30 per cent (Rs 3.37 billion) to Rs 75.03 billion. Total expenditure, Budget 2022 over Budget 2021 is estimated to decrease by 6.45 per cent (Rs 0.17269 trillion) to Rs 2.50535 trillion.
And, the Highways Ministry Budget, 2022 over 2021, a fall of 24.23 per cent (Rs 80 billion) to 250.19 billion, data showed. Nonetheless, the Defence Ministry Budget, 2022 over 2021, is billed to be increased by 5.04 per cent (Rs 17.89 billion) to Rs 373.05 billion. Defence, both in 2022 and 2021 is Sri Lanka’s single largest expenditure head.
Therefore, the Rajapaksa Government is duty-bound to explain to the people of this country, amidst widespread poverty, led by the COVID-19 pandemic, why the Samurdhi State Ministry Budget for 2022 has been cut, while that of the Defence Ministry has been increased, especially in the context that Sri Lanka is at peace, both internally and externally?