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What should be the priority of the new government?

19 August 2015 07:58 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The general election is over. The people of this country elected their representatives to rule the country for the next six years. The most important task before the newly elected government is to accelerate economic growth and achieve economic development by attracting foreign investors, creating more jobs, developing infrastructure and people in this country and so forth. 

As many voters who cast their votes for the government live in rural areas and suffer from poverty, the government ought to work hard to eradicate poverty, especially rural poverty. The strategies the new government will follow to eradicate poverty should be different from those of the past governments. Various and numerous factors have resulted in poverty, which is multi-dimensional by nature. If poverty alleviation programmes implemented so far have paid off, election promises to distribute subsidies for the poor could have not been made. It is because of projects made without an idea of what people wanted that resources allocated for them have been wasted. However, the first job of new government should be to alleviate rural poverty. So, let us have a closer look at rural poverty alleviation. 

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) refers to poverty as a deprivation of essential assets and opportunities to which every human being is entitled. Furthermore, the Copenhagen declaration at the world summit on social development described poverty as a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. The same situation in rural areas can be called rural poverty. According to the Head Count Index 2012/2013, urban poverty was 2.4 percent, rural poverty was 7.5 percent and estate poverty was 6.2 percent.  Many people considered the poor belong to the rural parts of the country. 

Sri Lanka, being an agricultural economy, has a rural population of over 70 percent, who are involved in the agricultural sector which had taken a pride of place in every election manifesto presented to the public for the past few months. In the development discussion, questions have to be raised as to why the rural community is poorer than their urban counterparts. As the rural community claims for a large segment of the population, their grievances have to be addressed. 


Causes 
In agricultural environments, the poor seem to have inherited poverty from generation to generation. The serious problem that they face is the lack of capital for self-employment. It is known that the commercial banks hesitate to lend farmers due to the higher degree of uncertainty of cultivations. Furthermore, farmers have no collaterals to convince the bank. Specially, farmers in the Northern and Eastern Provinces don’t have deeds to prove their ownership to the lands. In this backdrop, farmers are compelled to seek loans from informal sources, which ultimately make them indebted forever. 

High level of unemployment can be seen in the rural sector. Because they earn a low income, which is really not sufficient to pay for foods, they can never afford to educate their children. Low education never results in highly paid jobs. It can be seen that this comes about like a cycle. 

Poor access to markets has become a huge problem in villages. Farmers don’t keep abreast of new markets which give a reasonable price to their crops. Middlemen capitalize on the situation and make profits, while farmers who worked hard to cultivate, incur losses. For an instance, fruits brought from Embilipitiya to Colombo are perished in the transportation because of the lack of proper packaging. During the seasons, the bumper harvest brings prices of crops down, making farmers fed up with cultivations. They have no technology to make them durable and put into market during off-seasons. These are some of the causes that impoverish people. 


Effects 
Poverty has been influencing the fabric of the rural society in multiple ways. They are trapped by the vicious cycle of poverty, so that they can never be free of that. Their human rights are badly violated as they are poor. They don’t have an access to even basic needs. Children suffer from malnutrition. Unawareness of nutritional ingredients, unavailability and lack of money are some of the reasons which of course pave the way for malnutrition in rural settings. It has also an impact on children’s education and future performance. 

As parents who earn their bread and butter from farming, are not capable of financing children’s higher education, they are compelled to be engaged in poorly paid jobs in the informal sector. Hence, they make an income which might be sufficient to cover daily expenses only. Lower savings can result in lower capital. It means lower investment. Those who manage to break this vicious cycle of poverty are few and far between in the rural society. The majority get trapped. It is not something to be amazed at that those that come from low income families, have no capital to involve in self-employment. Consequently, they have no options other than being hired for sweatshops. 

Urban-ward migration has opened a can of warms. Once those able and educated leave villages, nobody is there to head the rural community in the right direction. As a result, it is not a secret that many rural schools don’t have English teachers. When we keep an eye on the past, it can be observed that politicians, having ideally capitalized on the prevailing state of affairs, claim for a victory at the election. This has created the poor voting for the rich. This is the gravity of poverty.


Solutions 
In seeking solutions to poverty, it has to be multi-dimensional. As pointed out by economists, empowering the poor is the solution which can be considered sustainable. Getting rid of poverty can be considered an individual task which should be supported by the government and other responsible parties. By all accounts, though empowerment is a good solution to poverty, there are different ways in which empowerment ought to be made. They are long term and cannot be done overnight.

Entrepreneurs can be considered builders of a strong economy. More entrepreneurs means more jobs, more jobs means unemployment, resulting in economic growth. Furthermore, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) should be strengthened and provided with some reliefs. However, subsidies are no longer valid in this effort. Poverty alleviation programmes must not be politically motivated, so that they are able to read the pulse of the poor. 

Infrastructure facilities in rural areas have been to a greater extent developed. Now, what should be done is to develop people, especially people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which had been neglected for three decades. 

It is up to the government to take leadership for mitigating poverty, while encouraging the private sector in this respect. There is no doubt that the poor in rural areas that voted for the government have hopes that their representatives will provide them with sustainable solutions to poverty.
 
(Amila Muthukutti holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Colombo and can be reached at amilasmiles@gmail.com)  
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