Last week, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe pompously declared, “No citizen shall go hungry, no child shall be malnourished.” Media reports claimed that the President is establishing an “accelerated national multi-sectoral combined program to ensure food security and protect children from malnutrition.” .
Wickremesinghe’s cynical proclamation followed a series of public warnings from international and local authorities about the growing number of starving families and cases of severe child malnutrition in Sri Lanka.
The appalling social conditions faced by the masses are a direct result of the brutal measures imposed by former President Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s government and the current Wickremesinghe regime to make working people pay for Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis.
On September 12, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program reported that Sri Lankan children are acutely vulnerable to the deepening social crisis. It found that an estimated 6.3 million people were facing “moderate to severe acute food insecurity” and that their situation would worsen if adequate “lifesaving assistance” and livelihood support were not provided.
The report warned that this would deteriorate further from October 2022 to February 2023 due to poor harvests of staples such as paddy rice and the ongoing economic crisis.
“After months of this crippling economic crisis, families are running out of options – they are exhausted. More than 60 percent of families are eating less and eating cheaper, less nutritious foods,” it said.
But instead of providing real assistance, the financially strapped Sri Lankan governments have scaled back feeding programs such as school meals and fortified foods for mothers and malnourished children.
* On August 26, UNICEF South Asia Regional Director George Laryea-Adjei said at a news conference in Colombo that rising costs of living and food prices have forced many families to drastically cut their daily diet. In September 2021, year-on-year inflation was 5.6 percent. Last month it climbed to 64.3 percent, food inflation was 93.7 percent.
According to a recent UNICEF report, 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, are in urgent need of food aid. It also showed that 15.7 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition. Adjei warned that children “could be at risk of severe stunting and death” because their families are starving and that malnutrition in Sri Lanka is now the second worst in South Asia and the 10th worst in the world.
According to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Census and Statistics, there are currently over 10,000 children in institutions mainly due to family poverty. The UNICEF report warned that “if the crisis worsens and more families place their children in institutional care as they cannot afford to feed or educate them, their conditions will be adversely affected”.
UNICEF noted that “negative coping mechanisms” such as the “institutionalization of children, absenteeism/dropping out of school, restricted food intake” “have been exacerbated by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the current socioeconomic and political crisis.”
The agency also warned that high inflation will double the number of people living in poverty over the next 24 months. About 93 percent of people below the poverty line work in the rural sector and in the real estate sector.
* A June survey by Save the Children reported worsening child mental health in 30 percent of Sri Lankan families. The main reason for this was the collapse of the family income, which had led to changes in the children’s appetite and sleep patterns and signs of increased aggression, with an inability to control their emotions and show violence towards others.
* A recent survey by Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital also found that most children admitted to the facility in the past two months suffered from normal or chronic malnutrition and stunted growth.
At a press conference, Deepal Perera, a specialist at the hospital, said: “If children are not protected from malnutrition, there is a risk that their intelligence quotient will drop due to a lack of brain growth.”
These alarming reports constitute a scathing indictment of the capitalist system and its global crisis, which is deepening as a result of the COVID pandemic and the ongoing US-NATO war against Russia in Ukraine.
Fearing a resumption of the mass protests and strikes that brought down the Rajapakse regime, Wickremesinghe’s declaration that “no citizen should starve and no child should be malnourished” is a crude attempt to cover up this reality, even if his government is trying hard prepared to unleash a new IMF austerity measures.
In a parliamentary debate on UNICEF’s findings on September 6, plantation minister Romesh Pathirana desperately tried to refute the findings, falsely claiming they were based on a 2016 report.
World Socialist Web Site Reporters discussed his allegations with farm workers and people in rural areas, who are among the poorest sections of Sri Lanka’s working class. They pointed out that rising prices, job losses and stagnant wages are leading to malnutrition.
Kamalani Balachandran from the Malwatte section of Aislaby Estate in Bandarawela said, “We used to be able to buy fish on wage days, but that’s impossible now.” They also couldn’t buy powdered milk and eggs because they were too expensive. “We don’t have a proper meal for breakfast or lunch, just a biscuit and tea. For dinner you have rice with something, and this situation does not lead to malnutrition?”
Radhika Kumari, a young computer operator at a private company who lives on the same estate, said, “We can’t even buy half the goods we used to buy.” She explained that because of the high price of powdered milk, children only get simple tea could be given. “Plantation workers can only afford to buy 50 or 100 grams of an item and only buy a quarter of a Lifebuoy soap tablet. People don’t have money for food,” she added.
A housewife from Ahangama, in southern Sri Lanka, told the WSWS that she made some money making coco rope at home for multinational Hayley’s. Her husband, a construction worker, is unable to find regular daily work and she has recently been unable to work due to illness.
“If I can make 15 ropes, I can earn 500 rupees [$US1.40]. We don’t get any support from the government or any other agency, so we can’t buy nutritious food for our children. It’s also extremely difficult to send them to school,” she said.
Nimalsiri, a 58-year-old fisherman from the same village, has five children. He said his son-in-law sometimes gets work as a day laborer but only gets about 1,500 rupees.
“Because of the fuel crisis, I can’t go fishing every day,” he said, “and when I go fishing I only make 1,000 rupees. How can we feed children with this famine? We are all starving, including children,” he said, explaining that his electricity bill recently went from Rs. 200 to Rs. 1,200.
What is the reason for increasing child malnutrition in Sri Lanka? The reports point to hyperinflation, stagnant wages, food insecurity and poverty, but these are just the symptoms. The very root of this social catastrophe is the profit system, not just in Sri Lanka but around the world.
According to a United Nations report, the number of people suffering from hunger worldwide rose to 828 million in 2021, up 150 million after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that around 45 million children under the age of five are currently suffering from malnutrition, with a 12-fold increase in deaths.
At the same time, the world’s richest have amassed enormous fortunes. According to the United Nations World Food Program, just $6.6 billion of this wealth could be used to avert global hunger.
This social catastrophe cannot be addressed as long as production and distribution remain in the hands of the capitalist class. The working class must end the profit system and replace it with socialism, in which production is under the democratic control of the working class and determined by the needs of the majority, not the wealthy few.
That is why the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is demanding that the banks, big business and plantations be placed under public ownership and democratic control of the workers. Such a socialist policy, based on an internationalist perspective, can only be implemented through the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government.
The SEP calls for the establishment of action committees of workers and rural poor and a democratic and socialist congress of workers and rural masses composed of delegates from these committees to fight for this program.