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Sunday April 14th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s Aswesuma welfare scheme draws protests; govt claims politicisation

ECONOMYNEXT – Beneficiaries continue to protest alleged injustice in the evaluation process of Aswesuma, Sri Lanka’s new welfare scheme, even as the government and opposition trade charges in what is fast becoming a fresh political controversy following a significant rise in poverty.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, who called the Aswesuma programme a “blindfold” in a statement he issued Sunday June 25 afternoon, claimed that it would only benefit 1.2 million Sri Lankans in three years.

“While questioning the government about its intention in providing subsidies only to 1.2 million people when there are 7 million poor people, we would also like to know from the government about the criteria adopted in selecting those 1.2 million people,” said Premadasa.

Protesting beneficiaries and would-be beneficiaries have made allegations of injustice in the evaluation process for selecting deserving candidates, which they said has been unfair and will deprive many poverty-stricken people of a vital stream of income.

The Aswesuma progarmme was originally set to come into effect on July 01, with some 400,000 families identified as ‘severely poor would receive payments of 15,000 rupees a month for three years.

The government, meanwhile, has accused “certain parties” of politicising the matter.

“The government is paying close attention to certain parties’ attempts to satisfy their political needs by giving the Aswesuma programme, which was created to aid those in need of economic stability, a political façade,” the president’s media division (PMD) said in a statement Sunday evening.

The government also made assurances that any shortcomings in the process of selecting the relevant candidates will be rectified immediately and plans are underway to discuss the matter with district secretaries, divisional secretaries, and other parties involved in the programme in the coming week.

According to the PMD statement, payments will be distributed among four social categories; namely, transitional, vulnerable, poor, and extremely poor. The usual allowances for the differently-abled, elderly, and kidney patients will also be provided, it said.

Aswesuma is supposed to consolidate existing social welfare schemes and allow beneficiaries to enter and exit depending on changing incomes. The proposal was approved by parliament in May without a vote. Sri Lanka’s parliament is controlled by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which still holds a majority despite a number of defections. The scheme was devised after concerns were raised that the existing welfare system leaves out some people who are truly in need due to a lack of an effective mechanism to enter and exit welfare systems.

There have also been concerns that under existing schemes, large numbers of newly poor do not get benefits, but a fixed set of beneficiaries, some of whom are no longer poor, are getting payments. About 3.7 million applications have been received, according to a government statement. The new welfare scheme is a requirement under a reform programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is also supported by the World Bank.

Sri Lanka’s poor has surged by 4 million to 7 million since 2019 to 31 percent of the population in 2023, a survey by LIRNEasia, a regional policy research organisaton, has found.

A summary of the study said that 33 percent of the 10,000 respondents had skipped a meal while 47 percent had reduced their meal sizes following Sri Lanka’s 2022 currency crisis, the worst since the island nation’s independence from the British.

About 27 percent of adults restricted their meals to feed children. The survey was conducted from October 10, 2022 to May 12, 2023.

Related:

Sri Lanka’s population in poverty surges to 31-pct of population: LirneAsia Survey

Citing the study data, Premadasa said in his statement on Sunday that the government has pushed the country into danger by not conducting a survey to “penetrate into the actual status of the country”.

“The government has a singular yearning to endanger the country and its people, or else, it would not do anything to put so much pressure on the people,” he said.

Premadasa also criticised the government’s approach to the ongoing IMF programme, which will see Sri Lanka receive a 2.9 billion dollar extended fund facility over a four-year period. The opposition leader claimed that the government has turned into a “deal only to achieve its own narrow goals rather than a common engagement for the good of the country”. These amounted to nothing but a short-sighted arbitrary process of an opportunistic government, he said.

Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the country’s main opposition party which has been accused by critics of embracing populism, called for a “populist vision”.

“We repeatedly emphasise that this situation can be changed and the country can be built with a populist vision only through a new mandate and we also emphasise that we will exert all possible pressure on the government to realise it,” he said.

Premadasa said Aswesuma should target the seven million poor people of Sri Lanka highlighted in the LIRNEasia study.

“We would like to recall that instead of the unscientifically selected people to achieve narrow goals, the people who have real needs should be selected through a scientific programme, and the remedies for the serious shortage of drugs in the country should be urgently applied and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya will provide the necessary support,” he said.

State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe said on Saturday June 24 that a list of beneficiaries for the new welfare scheme had yet to be finalised. Appeals and objections received by government agents and assistant government agents will be evaluated and, in the event further injustice is found, the Welfare Benefits Board (WBB) will intervene, the state minister tweeted.

Related:

Sri Lanka’s Aswesuma beneficiaries list yet to be finalised: state minister

The program plans to provide about 800,000 recipients identified as ‘poor’ with 8,500 rupees a month for three years. Another 400,000 recipients identified as ‘transitional’ will get 2,000 rupees a month until December 2023 and 400,000 identified as ‘vulnerable’ will get 5,000 rupees up to March 2024. Separate benefits will be paid to disabled, kidney patients and the aged. In Early April this year, the government said it planned to spend 206 billion rupees a year on welfare benefits amidst the economic crisis recovery.

The PMD statement on Sunday said 6,728 officers were employed for data collection to identify those who are eligible for welfare benefit payments, covering all the divisional secretariats across the island. It included 3,190 development officers, 494 economic development officers, 205 Grama Niladhari officers, 1127 other officers and 1712 temporary recruits.

At the regional office level, a three-member selection committee will monitor the data and, after approval by the district secretary, the deserving candidates will be selected, the government statement said.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena as the Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister announced Sunday morning that the time period given to those who have been wronged in the selection of the beneficiaries of the ‘Aswesuma’ welfare benefit payment programme to hand over appeals and objections has been extended until July 10, as some parties have alleged that there have been shortcomings in the process.

State Minister Semasinghe and Finance State Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya are also involved, according to the statement.

“If an individual or family in need of economic stability has lost this benefit, there is an opportunity to correct it by making inquiries through the Divisional Secretariats during the relevant period,” the statement said.

The basic requirement of the Aswesuma programme is to provide the necessary contribution to the people who need economic stability, and not to meet the needs of various parties based on a mere political process, the government said.

It also cautioned against panicking as a result of what it called political instigation or external influences if their name is not on the currently published list or if the name of an ineligible individual is on it.

“Instead, make any pertinent queries through the Divisional Secretariat Offices. The government further informs the applicants that they can contact the Divisional Secretary for assistance with any issues that may have developed with regard to their applications,” the PMD said. (Colombo/Jun26/2023)

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LGBTQIA+ Rights: Europe and South Asia See Similar Discriminatory Practices

ECONOMYNEXT – The rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community have been fraught with challenges and continue to be so, despite the many gains achieved in recent years.

Nor are those handful of rights universally applied, a recent discussion which looked at the European and South Asian perspectives on same-sex rights and unions revealed. Most developed nations have introduced protections for those identifying as LGBTQIA+, and a view from a distant lens paints a picture of tolerance. Yet, a closer look at the European arena throws up the many gaps that are evident in the application of the law.

In the so-called conservative South Asian nations, changes to legislation are slow to be implemented. That may come as a surprise, for, contrary to popular belief, same-sex relationships were culturally acceptable in the South Asian region and is not a Western concept points out Ruhaan Joshi, a Public Policy Practitioner from India.

Society’s view on same-sex relationships dimmed with the imposition of Western values and the criminalisation of such relationships with the advent of colonial rule.

While the LGBTQIA+ communities in South Asian countries currently battle to have same-sex relationships decriminalised and their unions legally accepted, the irony is that countries that first made such relationships punishable by law have moved on to be more welcoming, though some discriminatory practices continue.

Joshi was part of a discussion themed ‘On Being Queer and LGBTQIA+ in South Asia and Europe, held in Germany on April 9 this year. The discussion which included the release of two papers which examined the rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community in Europe and South Asia, respectively, was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Joining Joshi in the discussion were lawyer and parliamentarian Premnath C Dolawatte from Sri Lanka, Milosz Hodun, President, Projekt Polska Foundation, Poland, Michael Kauch, a Member of the European Parliament and RENEW Europe Group and Inaya Zarakhel, a Dutch-Pakistani actress and an activist on Queer Rights, who moderated the discussion. The two papers were presented by Hodun and Joshi, respectively.

In his opening remarks, Kauch pointed out that while the view of the liberals is that the rights recognized in one member nation of the EU must be accepted by all member countries, that is not the ground reality, the issue of Rainbow families being a case in point.

In the context of the European Union, though the Court of Justice has ruled on the freedom of movement of those in same-sex partnerships and their families, the ruling is not universally applied by member nations.

In Italy, and some European nations, surrogacy which helps childless couples to become parents is illegal. In other situations where same-sex parents are of different nationalities a child in that union faces restriction of movement or the possibility of being stateless if one parent hails from a country where such parental rights are not recognised.

Hodun meanwhile stated that in Poland transgender persons must first sue their parents for the gender assigned to them at birth, to have their gender marker changed on documents.

Some countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan resort to State-sponsored homophobia, and in many instances politicians and political parties promote such biases to boost their voter base it was pointed out. Even where laws are in place for the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights, there is no political will to implement them.

In Europe where migrants arrive in droves seeking asylum, and are frowned upon by many of those countries, LGBTQIA+ members face even more discrimination Hodun says, both by other refugees and governments, where most often the state ignores the situation despite the guidelines issued by the UN and the European Court of Justice. Hate speech and hate crimes too are on the rise he adds stating that at least 80 per cent go unreported.

Increasingly the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced a diminishing of their safe spaces as right-wing and populist governments are elected across the globe. Taking a dig at feminism, meanwhile, Kauch states that though feminists uphold a woman’s right to opt for an abortion, they take a different approach on the topic of surrogacy.

Dolawatte who waded into unchartered waters when he presented a Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise same-sex relationships through an amendment to section 365 of the Penal Code and the repealing of section 365A in its totality, is hopeful that the Bill will pass its third reading. It’s been an uphill battle he says, referring to the case filed in the Supreme Court against the Bill. The court ruled in his favour.

He had little or no support from his own party members, but says the President of the country, and younger party members are with him on this issue. Apart from making Sri Lanka a safe space, it would encourage foreign nationals identifying as LGBTQIA+ to visit without fear, and thus boost tourism he opines.

As Joshi states society has come a long way from when LGBTQIA+ were made fun of and were subject to violence to the positive portrayal in movies. Such movies are also well-received by society. Transgender identity has a distinct recognition in South Asian religious beliefs. Hijra, Khwaja Sara or Kinnar are some names given to transgender folk and they have, since ancient times been an accepted group in society. On the one hand, there’s Afghanistan and the Maldives which make no allowances for the LGBTQIA+ community, while Nepal became the first South Asian nation in 2023, to register a same-sex marriage, Joshi states. In most South Asian nations, the courts have ruled in favour of relaxing the rules against this community, and, like in Europe, it is the governments that drag their feet.

For governments to change their stance, society must take the lead in fighting for the unconditional dignity of the individual, freedom of movement, and safeguarding the tenets of democracy, he says adding that it must also run parallel with the LGBTQIA+ community looking beyond themselves at issues that impact democratic values, and the societal restrictions non-LGBTIQIA+ groups face, such as opposition to inter-caste marriage and the right to adopt outside their caste systems and equal access to many other privileges.

While the panellists advocated working together across the global divide as a step towards achieving equal rights for all, Dolawatte also called for caution; too much pressure on such issues from Europe he said may not be welcome, and must be handled with care.

With right-wing and populist governments getting elected across the globe, Kauch claims the forthcoming EU elections will prove crucial in deciding how future and current governments ensure tolerance and diversity amongst their citizenry.

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Sri Lanka making new economic laws to embed structural reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is making new laws and also revising old legislation following a comprehensive review of past experience and lessons learned, Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana has said.

Most of these new laws focus on structural changes of the existing executive and administrative structures, Siriwardana was quoted as saying in a speech to ministry officials on April 08.

The laws related to public finance, procurement, public private partnerships, state enterprises and also a law on the offshore economy.

The following new laws are being made:

a. Public Financial Management Bill
b. Public Debt Management Bill
c. Economic Transformation Bill
d. Management of State Owned Enterprises Law
e. Public Private Partnership (PPP) Law
f. Investment Law
g. Public Procurement Bill
h. Unified Labor Law Bill
i. Food Security Bill
j. Public Asset Management Bill
k. Microfinance and Credit Regulatory Authority Bill
l. Secured Transaction Bill
m.Offshore Economic Management Bill
n. New law for facilitating proposed agricultural land lease programme
Public Service Employment Bill
o. Sri Lanka Accounting and Standard Monitoring Act

Changes are planned to the following laws

a. Amendments to Agrarian Development Act
b. Amendments to Excise Ordinance
c. Amendments to Customs Ordinance
d. Amendments to Finance Act
e. Amendments to Foreign Exchange Act. Colombo/Apr15/2024)

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After PM’s Chinese visit, US NSA talks to Sri Lanka President’s advisor on peace, security

ECONOMYNEXT – The United States National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan held talks with Sri Lanka President’s Senior Advisor on National Security Sagala Ratnayaka focusing on regional security issues this week.

The conversation between the two comes days after Sri Lanka Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena ended an official visit to China in which he met President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Li Qiang in Beijing amid discussions over further investments in Sri Lanka and concerns over banning Chinese research ships.

The United States along with India is highly concerned over increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, which is located in a strategic location in the Asia.

China already owns a port and a proclaimed land next to the main Colombo port in Sri Lanka and analysts say the Beijing’s ownership of assets has raised doubts if China is planning to use Sri Lanka as a military base. China has denied this and said its relationship with Sri Lanka is only based on commercial aspects.

The discussion between Sullivan and Ratnayaka focused on a range of crucial topics aimed at bolstering bilateral relations between the two nations, the President’s Media Division (PMD) said.

“Central to their discussion was the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting Sri Lanka’s security and sovereignty,” the PMD said in a statement.

“Acknowledging Sri Lanka’s ongoing endeavours, Sullivan emphasized the importance of completing the fiscal, monetary, and governance aspects of the IMF program.”

The US along with India has raised possible threats of increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, government officials have said. Both  countries see China as a security threat to the Indian Ocean region, they say.

“The conversation also delved into future prospects for collaboration between the two countries, exploring avenues for enhanced cooperation in various spheres,” the PMD said.

“Sullivan conveyed his keen interest in fostering continued engagement with Sri Lanka, underscoring the mutual objective of advancing peace and security in the region.”

“This dialogue marks a pivotal moment in U.S.-Sri Lanka relations, demonstrating a shared commitment to promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” (Colombo/April 13/2024)

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