POSITIVE ACTION NEEDED TO PREVENT A NEW ‘ARAGALAYA’
In July 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country after thousands of protesters stormed his presidential residence and other government buildings, demanding his resignation. Widening violent protests, the country’s bankruptcy and acute shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies forced then president Gotabaya to flee the country. Protesters also called for the resignation of then premier Mr Wickremesinghe and burned down his (Wickremesinghe’s) private residence. The premier’s office was stormed in demonstrations which by then had turned violent. Rajapaksa formally resigned on 14, July 2022, members of parliament elected prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s new president. In October, food inflation stood at 85.6 percent. It meant that a significant part of the population was finding it difficult to meet basic needs. Figures published by World Food Programme (WFP) showed 32% of households were food insecure, and 68% of households are turning to food based coping strategies such as eating less preferred food or reducing the number of meals and portion-sizes. The ex-president’s sudden ban on imports of agro chemicals resulted in a 40 percent reduction in agricultural outputs in the 2021/2022 Maha and 50% reduction during the 2022 Yala seasons. It led to farmers abandoning their fields and taking to the streets. UNICEF estimated that approximately 2.3 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 56,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM). New President Wickremesinghe faced the task of leading the country out of its economic collapse and restoring order after protests which had turned violent. However, within months of the new president assuming office, he was able to successfully negotiate a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide a $2.9 billion debt restructuring facility. Together with an over 2 billion credit line from India the foreign exchange crisis was temporarily overcome and essential items which had disappeared from shop shelves became available to the public albeit in limited quantities. The shortage of petroleum and LP gas too eased. With the food crisis easing Wickremesinghe was also able to quell the protests. However, a new crisis was a brewing, local government elections and provincial elections were due. Members of the parliamentary opposition demanded polls be held in a timely manner. Claiming the country did not possess the finances needed to conduct the election the two polls were indefinitely postponed. Today - a year since our country was left bankrupt, though the situation of hunger in the country has eased, it has not been overcome. Surveys have shown the cost for a family of four (father, mother and two children) to have three meals a day only, costs over Rs. 120,000/per month. Yet, the average monthly wage countrywide is less than 60,000/-! Media and government’s own Family Health Bureau of the Ministry of Health for the year 2023 reports over 15,000 children aged under 5 years are reportedly suffering from severe acute malnutrition. However, this figure is lower than the total of SAM cases recorded in 2022, which showed 32 percent of households were food insecure. Meanwhile, the percentage of children aged under 5 who are underweight has increased from 15.3% in 2022 to 17.1% in 2023, with Nuwara Eliya recording the highest underweight percentage at 26.4%. A study by the International Federation of Red Cross and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society in September 2022 shows 34 percent households saying their children’s education has been affected due to the economic crisis and 60 percent said they see an increase in risk of children dropping out from school at an early age. Not surprising when a family with two children would need an additional Rs. 160,000/- (annually) to provide the kids basic educational needs - uniforms, school bags, pens, pencils, exercise books, facility fees, transport charges, shoes and socks. While goods are available in the marketplace, a majority of the poor cannot afford to purchase them. Though both the IMF and government speak of safety nets for the needy, the worst affected have still not seen this practically. Something needs be done in the here and now to avoid another ‘Aragalaya-like’ situation. To avoid such a calamity, the government needs to recognise this reality and act to prevent such a possibility.