Occasions when the Sri Lankan MPs speak with one voice about anything in the parliament are as rare as a four-leaf clover. Surprisingly, they made common cause in the House, on Friday, opposing as they did the selection of the beneficiaries of the newly-introduced social protection programme, Aswesuma, which is reported to have passed muster with the IMF.

All the MPs have sunk their political differences to pick holes in the Aswesuma programme and take up the cudgels for the Samurdhi beneficiaries who have been left out of the Aswesuma scheme. They have done so because the poor are a force to be reckoned with where their numerical strength is concerned.

The government has decided to replace the existing Samurdhi programme with Aswesuma with effect from next month in a bid to rationalize its welfare expenditure reportedly at the behest of the IMF. In May 2023, the parliament unanimously passed the new welfare benefit plan, which allows beneficiaries to enter or leave it, depending on their changing income levels.


Uphill task

The task of selecting the beneficiaries of poor relief or any other form of state assistance has never been easy in this country, where politics takes precedence over virtually everything else. Many of the current Samurdhi recipients are up in arms, claiming that they have been left out of the Aswesuma scheme. Will their protest snowball into a mass agitation campaign, as warned in some quarters?

SLPP MP Jagath Kumara warned the parliament on Friday that unless the protesters’ grievances were redressed, there would be social upheavals with the poor taking to the streets and demanding justice. Their agitations could get out of hand, he said.

The past few days have seen protests by hundreds, if not thousands, of Samurdhi beneficiaries, who claim that they have been deprived of poor relief unfairly. They are not likely to stop protesting unless their demand is granted, but it is highly unlikely that all Samurdhi recipients will benefit from Aswesuma, whose aim is to rationalize social welfare expenditure, or, in other words, to reduce the number of recipients of relief.


Social protection in Sri Lanka

Poverty has become such a serious issue globally that even the developed that promote neoliberal economic policies, which place greater emphasis on wealth generation than on the redistribution of it, and the international institutions representing their interests have realized the importance of social protection, which is now a vital part of the western development paradigm.

The World Bank (WB), which stands accused of promoting neoliberalism in the developing world, has said social protection policies and programmes are necessary to help individuals and families escape poverty, manage risks, and improve resilience and opportunity. Prioritizing poorer households in social protection programmes, the WB says, often can generate more progress on reducing poverty and inequality and improving other dimensions of welfare such as human capital.

The number of poor Sri Lankans has surged by 4 million to 7 million since 2019 to 31 percent of the population in 2023, according to the findings of a recent survey by LIRNEasia.

 Sri Lanka’s poverty rate, which continued to increase in 2021, doubled between 2021 and 2022, from 13.1 to 25 percent, the WB has said in its latest bi-annual report, which highlights the fact that ‘this increase has added an additional 2.5 million people into poverty in 2022’. Due to food insecurity, households are reducing their spending on health and education, and rising food insecurity has also led to increases in malnutrition and stunting – up from 7.4 percent in 2021 to 9.4 percent in 2022, the report says, pointing out that poverty is projected to remain above 25 percent in the next few years due to the multiple risks to households’ livelihoods. The negative economic outlook for 2023 and 2024 and adverse effects of revenue-mobilizing reforms could worsen poverty projections, according to the World Bank.


Poor targeting

What has characterized social protection programmes in Sri Lanka all these years is politicization and lack of proper targeting. These negative factors have caused the welfare programmes to fail and become a huge burden on the state coffers. Most of all, many beneficiaries of these schemes are not eligible for state assistance, and they have had themselves registered as low-income earners with the help of some corrupt state officials and politicians. These individuals must be among the protesters who claim to have been left out of the Aswesuma programme, which is also said to be affected by targeting issues.

There is no single targeting method for every situation, according to the WB, which says whether to use methods, such as self-targeting, demographic targeting, or household welfare-based targeting methods should be based on context and capacities. The non-availability of a universal method of targeting has been to the advantage of politicians and their supporters; they can use social protection programmes as a political tool.


Power of poor relief

Before the 1994 general election, the then SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) got into hot water over a statement its prime ministerial candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga made about poverty alleviation. She said the PA would scrap the Janasaviya social protection scheme and introduce the Samurdhi programme to grant relief to the poor.

The UNP propagandists sought to turn the poor against the PA by claiming that Chandrika was trying to deprive the people of state assistance. Their efforts however did not succeed. The then SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike went so far as to make a special statement in the parliament that Chandrika had expressed her personal view and not the policy of the SLFP or the Opposition alliance led by it. Such is the power of poor relief!

It may be recalled that one of the factors that caused the 1953 hartal was a drastic reduction in the rice subsidy, which had benefited the poor across the country.

 UNP Chairman and MP Vajira Abeywardena claimed at a meeting of party organizers in Ambalangoda on Sunday that the 17-year-long UNP rule had collapsed in 1994 because its Janasaviya poverty alleviation programme had left out a large number of people, who turned hostile towards the UNP government. Curiously, it was President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Janasaviya programme that helped the UNP enlist popular support to win elections until his untimely demise in May 1993. Did MP Abeywardena seek to discredit his political enemy, Sajith Premadasa, MP, by finding fault with Janasaviya the latter’s father launched?

Benefactor-beneficiary relationship

Political parties and politicians have established pockets of support in poverty-stricken parts of the country, especially in slum and shanty areas in urban centres and their suburbs by forging a benefactor-beneficiary relationship with the poor. Many candidates distribute truckloads of goods among the poor during their election campaigns, expecting the latter’s votes in return. Some of them succeed in their endeavour. This is one of the main reasons for the MPs’ protests against the selection process in respect of the Aswesuma programme.

There have even been instances where some candidates even distributed liquor free of charge besides dry rations in the poor quarters of the city of Colombo and its suburbs.

It is doubtful whether any politician who is dependent on the votes of the poor is serious about the economic empowerment of those unfortunate people; instead, they seem keen on the provision of poor relief, which helps them establish block votes and ensure their election.

Protests in Parliament

Among the MPs who were critical of the selection of the Aswesuma beneficiaries, in the parliament, were Rohitha Abeygunawardena (SLPP), Chaminda Wijesiri (SJB), Chandirma Weerakkody (SLPP), Dayasiri Jayasekera (SLPP), Ranjith Madduma Bandara (SJB) and Sajith Premadasa (SJB). Acting Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe sought to pacify the irate MPs by claiming that there was time for appeals to be made, and insisted that the lists of beneficiaries had not been finalized. He said the District Secretaries would appoint review committees to peruse the lists of prospective recipients of poor relief under the new scheme, and anyone who had been left out unfairly, could appeal. The deadline for appeals has reportedly been extended up to 10 July.

The SLPP dissident groups have also taken exception to the shortcomings of the Aswesuma scheme and called for their rectification. SLPP MP Dullas Alahapperruma has flayed the government for what he calls the denial of poor relief to the needy.

MP Madduma Bandara told the House, on Friday, that there had to be a one-day debate on the Aswesuma-related issues, which, he said, had adversely affected the interests of the poor. Whether his request will be granted remains to be seen. Even if the parliament decides to hold a debate on Aswesuma and issues that have arisen from it, chances of anything worthwhile being discussed about how to target social protection better, achieve the goals of Aswesuma, empower the poor and exclude ineligible recipients are remote. There is the likelihood of the MPs trying to win brownie points with poor voters instead of exploring ways and means of streamlining efforts to help people come out of poverty.