Feeding and fending for the poor

By N Sathiya Moorthy

After a steep, 75-per cent hike in power-tariffs, the government has now announced increased charges for water and drainage charges. Though brought down after a steeper increase at the peak of fuel-shortage, the transport fares too are not going to be the same even as much as they had become in the days prior to the economic crisis.

According to various reports, food inflation in the country is at an unimaginable 82-per cent and the general inflation, 60-plus per cent. Some studies have shown that a normal family would require a minimum of LKR 110,000 per month – which was nowhere near the average income of the common man even in normal times. Of course, those days, the prices and tariffs too were not this steep.

The government has gazetted maximum prices for egg, fixed at LKR 43 for each. But there is a black-market price, if not black-market in eggs. Wholesalers and retailers alike complain that the gazetted prices do not reflect the reality. Continuing non-availability and/or steep prices of cooking gas and kerosene could lead to massive deforestation for the people to go back to the era of firewood – and the government would be unable to do anything about it.

What does it all mean?

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, while presenting and defending his supplementary budget in Parliament this week as his own Finance Minister, can be expected to brief the nation about the real progress, if any, in last week’s continuing conversation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for assistance. In the process, members, especially from the Opposition, may compel him to reveal the possible conditionalities that the institutional lender may have laid out, whether in full or in parts.

Health insurance

The Budget debate in Parliament could provide a clue to where prices and availability of goods, and in turn, services are going to be in the coming months and years. For if the prices of goods are going to go north, those in the unorganised services sector especially would be compelled to demand more for feeding their families. This could include your housemaid and handy-men from electrician to plumber, who comes and attends to minor, and at times, major repairs to your home systems.

The alternative, if only over months, could be for their children to drop-out of schools, or shift from one to another. The latter would be heart-wrenching for parents and children alike. The former would mean that the nation’s claims to high literacy could vanish, if only over years. Healthcare would of course suffer, for want of medicines and other pharma requirements. This and also the attendant high cost of imported medicines and domestic healthcare could threaten even upper middleclass families, not to fall sick any more.

Health insurance may seem an attractive proposition, but not many families will have a surplus to pay the premiums. Maybe, the government could pay lower premia for lower income families and enrol them into some insurance scheme or the other. The government should also put in place a mechanism where the private sector insurance firms are bent upon cheating the common man of his dues and expectations, between their illegibly-printed terms and conditions.

For the same reason, the government should set up a panel to study multiple unorganised sector jobs, and seek to provide fiscal cover, where it cannot provide them other relief. Going beyond parliamentarians and even NGOs, the government should find ways to interact constantly with common people, to be able to appreciate individual requirements and individual inadequacies in the public service, which is going to become abysmal in the coming days, if effective corrective are not applied, asap.

On paper, Opposition SJB parliamentarian Harsha de Silva’s suggestion for cash-disbursement to the poor in lieu of existing subsidies may sound good – but it will be so only on paper, unless such disbursements are linked to inflation figures as assessable and accessible every three months or so. This is particularly so until prices for which those subsidies are given now, stabilise somewhere, somehow.

Jobs for millions

Indications are that the IMF would demand a cut in non-productive recurring expenditure, and salaries and perks for public sector employees could become a fall guy, among others. Even without it all, there is general acceptance that 1.4 m public sector jobs for a 22-m population is unaffordable even at the best of times.

There is a counter-argument that in a nation with an increasing population – the two JVP insurgencies and the LTTE war did take human lives in tens of thousands, and sadly so – and with no other employment opportunities, the government better stepped in and filled the gap. Democracy comes with such compulsions, as the mood of the voter alone counts when he votes in every election.

The fact is that close to five decades after market-oriented economic reforms, no foreign investor has put in his money in industries that create as many jobs as there are employable hands – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. If someone, especially from the West, promises massive investments, for setting up manufacturing units, robots and AI would steal more human jobs than was possible a decade ago.

The alternative would be for the government to identify regional promoters from other South Asian countries who can provide more jobs. Like the knit-wear industry in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is facing a cotton price rise. Can the government think in terms of value-addition in this sector, by identifying third-nation cotton suppliers, and arrange with their governments for regular supplies at concessional prices, encourage those with the expertise and experience to set up shop here, and provide jobs for Sri Lankans, men and women.

There are any number of such Third World industries that need to be systematically identified and brought into the nation, with the additional purpose of creating gainful employment locally – unlike what the Chinese credit-investments did through the past decade and more, and what western investments would do at present.

Then, there are forgotten projects like the pharma SEZ in Trincomalee with India for which an agreement was signed years ago, but which never saw the light of the day. Reviving it now could mean that domestic pharma prices and their availability could become a welcome feature. Like the others mentioned, it would also bring in the much-needed forex.

Likewise, the government should actively consider reviving the nation’s traditional agriculture, horticulture and dairy sectors, with the latter two going on to fetch forex through imports. Attention should also be given to rejuvenating the ailing tea sector, which, like the rest of the farm sector would create jobs locally for the rural population – without which they all would be flooding the urban space, whether for jobs or as squatters.

Institutional care

The UNICEF has said that staple food has become unaffordable in the country and malnutrition is becoming rampant. The UN childcare agency has also said that more and more children are coming under ‘institutional care’, meaning that families are forced to ‘abandon’ their children (though that is not the term that the UNICEF uses). There have to be charity hospitals, by whatever name called, even as the nation takes pride in exporting more and more of qualified nurses for earning forex for the family and the government.

If this is the case of the future-generation, what about the past generation(s) – old men and women, whom families would end up abandoning ‘happily’ (?) for want of a better way to feed them. There is thus going to be more beggars on the nation’s streets, increasing incidences of theft and robbery and other property crimes – to manage which, the existing police force is going to continue fighting in the dark.

In the interim, can religious institutions of all faiths make sure that there are no have-nots, meaning no beggars or those driven to suicide or crimes, from among individual communities. They can begin by feeding their communities. They can draw upon their funds, the Tamils can call in the Diaspora for help – and such a self-help community scheme (alone) will go a long way in keeping the wolves out, at least until the government is ready to tackle the situation through policy initiatives!

(The writer is a political analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)