President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been busy over the last couple of weeks, from making surprise inspection visits to the RMV, National Hospital and Katunayake Airport, to signing off on high-profile appointments to improve key State institutions.
While the lasting impact of these moves remains to be seen, they can all be categorised under realistically achievable goals. However, with Cabinet giving approval this week to the President’s proposal for a National Program for the Eradication of Poverty, this marks the first major policy initiative undertaken by President Rajapaksa, and it is by no means a simple one.
The President’s program primarily aims to ensure the food security of low-income families by providing them essential food items, along with a program to provide 100,000 jobs for them.
Its other components include providing low-income families with houses under the ‘One House – One Village’ program on an accelerated basis; implementing the rural road development program of 100,000 km to provide quality road access facilities to at least one million households, and providing easy access to credit, prioritising small business development, self-employment and household needs, and household-level livelihood development initiatives.
But it suffices to say that the implementation of these initiatives need to be handled with the utmost care. Poverty has been a burning issue in Sri Lanka over the years.
Surveys show that 16 out of the 25 districts in the country had poverty levels well above the national average, which meant that districts such as Colombo, where poverty is at extreme lows, were distorting the severity of the overall problem in the country and helping politicians hide behind misleading statistics. Districts such as Mannar, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa and Monaragala recorded extremely worrying levels of poverty, which highlights the country’s problems with wage gaps and the inequity in wealth distribution.
Poverty reduction and reduction in the inequality of wealth distribution as well as income gaps have to go hand in hand with the GDP if the Government is serious about creating a sustainable atmosphere of equality for its people. Once a smaller percentage of income goes into the hands of the poverty stricken, a vicious cycle is created in which the poor can do little to improve their situation with limited access to education and healthcare.
This sort of inequality ensures that the poor stay in permanent poverty and poverty itself becomes a permanent fixture in the country’s economic landscape. Sri Lanka’s battle with high income inequality stretches over decades.
Corruption is also rampant in Sri Lanka and there is little assurance that the intended funds promised in the past have benefitted the people. In such a situation, it would make sense to ascertain that the funds have been used as they were intended and did not end up lining someone’s wallet.
The repeated failure of Government programs to reach their full potential is also a reason for people to distrust the State and not pay their taxes. As a result, much urban development is side-tracked or outright neglected as people try to shirk responsibility. If Sri Lanka is to be a truly developed nation, then it has to embrace good governance with all its requirements for transparency and efficacy – and the President has to maintain his action-first mantra over the long haul.