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Tuesday February 27th, 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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Sri Lanka president appoints Supreme Court-faulted official as police chief after CC clearance

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed Deshbandu Tennakoon as the 36th Inspector General of Police (IGP) of the country after the Constitutional Council (CC) cleared the official who along with three other police officers were asked by the Supreme Court to compensate 2 million rupees in a fundamental rights case last year.

“President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed Deshbandu Tennakoon as the IGP in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution,” the President’s Media Division (PMD) said.

The island nation’s Supreme Court on December 14 ordered Tennakoon when he was the Acting IGP and three other officials to pay a compensation of 500,000 rupees each for the violation of the fundamental rights of an individual.

The Supreme Court also instructed the Police Commission to take disciplinary action against the said Police officers after it considered the petition filed by W. Ranjith Sumangala who had accused the Police officers of violating his fundamental rights during his detention at Mirihana Police Station in 2011.

The Supreme Court held that the four police officers violated the fundamental rights of the petitioner by his illegal arrest, detention and subjection to torture at the Mirihana Police Station, which was under the supervision of Tennakoon at the time of the arrest.

President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake presented the official appointment letter to Tennakoon on Monday (26) at the Presidential Secretariat.

When Tennakoon was asked over if the Supreme Court decision would have an impact on his appointment as the IGP last week, he declined to comment, saying that it was a Supreme Court matter and he does not want to say anything about it.

Tennakoon was also criticized by Colombo Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith when he was appointed as the Acting IGP citing allegations against him related to security lapses leading up to the Easter Sunday attacks which killed at least 269 in April 2019.

However, Tennakoon rejected the allegations. (Colombo/Feb 26/2024)

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No water tariff hike in Sri Lanka this year: Minister

Millennium Challenge Corporation Photo.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s planned water tariff formula is ready, and the government will implement it this year only if the formula’s tariff is lower than the current price, Water Supply Minister Jeevan Thondaman said.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government has been implementing IMF-led pricing policies on utilities and the Water Supply Ministry has already come up with a formula.

“There is a water tariff formula in place right now and we are waiting for it to be drafted and seek approval from the cabinet,” Thondaman told reporters at a media briefing in Colombo on Monday.

“Once this water tariff formula is in place, there will be an annual revision with an option of biannual review.

The formula has been developed with the help of the Asian Development Bank. The formula includes electricity and exchange rate among many others as components like the fuel formula.

The National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB) increased the water tariff in August 2023, claiming that the operating cost had been increased owing to high interest payment for bank loans and increased electricity prices.

The last year revision saw the consumers paying 30-50 percent increase from the existing water bill.

Minister Thondaman said he will implement the new formula this year only if there is a reduction.

TARIFF CUT WILL BE IMPLEMENTED 

“We will have to wait to see what the formula is. If the formula shows us there needs to be a reduction in the water tariff, we can implement it. But if there is an increase, why should we burden the people when we are on a road to recovery?” he said.

He said a group of experts including University Professors are working on the formula and the numbers.

“Once they come with the number, we will have to take a decision on whether we are going to impose on the people or not,” he said.

“We have already spoken to the Asian Development Bank and informed them we have established the formula. But according to the ADB requirement of this policy-based loan, the implementation period is only in 2025.”

“But right now, you want to take the approval for the formula for sustainability.”

The Energy Ministry is considering a drastic slash in electricity tariff soon. Thondaman said the exact numbers will be decided on after the finalized electricity tariff.

However, he said that as per the formula, there has to be a up to 10 percent increase in the water tariff as of now.

“Given the current formula set up, there must be around a 9-10 percent increase. It was actually at 14 percent. What we have done is since it is at 14 percent, we also did a calculation to see how we can do a cost cutting,” he said.

“So, despite our cost cutting measures, there will be an increase of 9 or 10 percent. But we will not be imposing it as of now because this year is meant to be policy sector reforms. Next year is meant to be the implementation.”

“As per August 2023 water tariff hike, we are able to come close to sustainable. So right now, there is no issue in the water sector. But a formula eventually needs to be established.” (Colombo/Feb 26/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes at 310.80/311.00 to the US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed at 310.80/311.00 to the US dollar Monday, from 310.95/311.05 on Thursday, dealers said.

Bond yields were down.

A bond maturing on 01.02.2026 closed stable at 10.60/80 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 closed at 11.80/90 percent down from 11.90/12.05 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.03.2028 closed at 12.00/12.15 percent down from 12.10/25 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.07.2029 closed at 12.20/70 percent from 12.20/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2030 closed at 12.30/70 percent down from 12.40/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2031 closed at 12.60/80 percent from 12.45/13.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2032 closed at 12.50/90 percent from 12.50/13.30 percent. (Colombo/Feb26/2024)

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