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Gotabaya: Economic disparity not racial, its rural-urban unequal resources.

Washington, Feb. 6 -- Sri Lanka's new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, addressing the 72nd Independence in Colombo on February 04, made a bold statement no other leader in the past had ever said: Sri Lanka's socio-economic disparities has nothing to do with ethnicity, but it's the urban-rural divide, urban centers having extremely better facilities at the expense of the rural population.

Quoting that part of his address the president declared: "The masses can be given real freedom when social and economic discrepancies are reduced. In a unitary state, everyone should have equal rights. Even today, there is a large gap between the haves and have-nots in our society. The facilities that are available in our urban centers are lacking in rural areas. Education facilities are not equal in all areas. Healthcare facilities are not equally dispersed. Job opportunities have not spread to all regions. These inequalities are not due to racial or religious reasons. These are common problems that the country faces. In strengthening the ability for people to live freely, we must first address the economic problems that affect the public. That is why the eradication of poverty is a priority of our Government."

President Rajapaksa has taken a national and international misnomer and a propaganda tool that governed this Island-nation and Western diplomatic missions for many decades to the forefront to dispute that one ethnic community has socio-economic facilities at the expense of the other.

In short, Mr. Rajapaksa was dismissing the misnomer of some within Sri Lanka and many in the Western world that the majority Sinhalese were depriving the legitimate socio-economic rights of the minority Tamils.

He reiterated that "The masses can be given real freedom when social and economic discrepancies are reduced.

In a unitary state, everyone should have equal rights."

Obviously President Rajapaksa, due to the time limit, couldn't provide an extensive explanation to what he briefly said.

In this Note, we intend presenting an analysis to complete his official sentiments.

The debate for many decades and arising out of such a debate of ethnic discrimination emerged as one could see because of the failure of a proper analysis and interpretation of the inter-connection and interrelation between demographic factors and ethnicity, with the prevailing economic factors in rural (which is 77 percent), urban (which is 19 percent) and plantation (which is 4.5 percent) in relation to education, economic, and employment opportunities; ignoring the social status of the privileged and underprivileged ethnic communities in these three sectors; and inability to understand how all the above factors had contributed to the ongoing debate, which affects all ethnic communities.

These are what President Rajapaksa was briefly highlighting in his Independence Day address.

According to the 2012 Sri Lanka government census and statistics data, 18 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka lived in urban sectors, domiciled by the three ethnic communities - Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims - enjoying excessive privileges at the expense of the rural sector, also domiciled by the same three ethnic communities with scant facilities.

The 74 percent Sinhalese majority, whose bulk of the population is concentrated in the economically/socially/educationally handicapped, most disadvantageous rural sector (which is 77 percent of the land mass of the country), we need to realize that a greater proportion of the 11.1 percent Tamils too are in the similar plight of living in this rural sector, which has not seen much of progressive development in education, employment, and social facilities that the urban sector has experienced. A bulk of about 75 percent of the country's population-Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims-lives in this (still) backward rural sector.

The Northern and Eastern regions of the country is where a bulk of Tamils, now estimated to be 46 percent of Tamil population, live-in the most neglected rural sector.

The utter plight of the 5 percent plantation Tamils of Indian origin who live in the plantation sector, which is 8 percent of Sri Lanka's land mass is a separate issue altogether.

Can policymakers in Sri Lanka ignore that, in the 77 percent rural sector (and the 75 percent of the population living in that sector), there is a potpourri of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims and that this sector is the most disadvantaged and underdeveloped, in which the peasants do not receive reasonable prices for their agricultural and other produce, and inadequate educational facilities and infrastructural development have halted their upward social mobility. Then the country has the 19 percent urban sector (where, according to the Government of Sri Lanka census and statistics data, 18.1 percent of the total population live)-again a potpourri of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims-which has received preferential treatment at the expense of the rural sector since the country's independence. One cannot ignore the 4 percent geographical area in which approximately 5 percent of plantation Tamils of Indian origin is domiciled under dismal socioeconomic conditions.

The US embassy, Colombo, undertook a six-week extensive and in-depth socioeconomic-political survey in ten administrative districts in June-July 1987. The districts covered were Southern, Southwestern, and North-Central.

Approximately 20 percent of Sri Lanka's population was targeted in this survey. Washington had a clear understanding of the disparity between the urban and the rural sectors in terms of economic opportunities, educational facilities, employment availability, and the lack of essential social structure for the upward mobility of the vast rural population from the twenty-five-page report it received. In the rural areas of these ten districts, there were little or no signs of the masses being offered much needed stimulus, impetus, and incentives to lead them on the path of upward social mobility. In adjacent urban centers, central and local governments have engaged in many ways to improve the lives of the population. The survey saw that all ethnic communities were visibly entangled in this unusual Sri Lankan process that awarded preferential treatment to those in the urban centers and "historic injustice" to those in the rural sectors.

There is not much progress seen in the rural sector even at present, according to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This writer who was then the Foreign Service Political Specialist at the American Embassy was instrumental in developing the format of this survey, and undertaking to travel to those ten districts during those six weeks meeting a cross-section of the population, having firsthand evidence to ascertain the 'urban-rural divide'

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank released a report in October 2015 that presented broad and comprehensive data on the status of poverty that has engulfed all ethnic communities in various regions in Sri Lanka. This World Bank study, in fact, negates the arguments that the ethnic Tamils are the most underprivileged ethnic community in Sri Lanka and that the majority Sinhalese enjoy privileged position in the Sri Lankan society.

Let us present here two distinct regions, one Tamil majority and the other Sinhalese majority where poverty is the highest.

Paragraph 216 of the report notes:

"As noted in Chapter II, portions of the Northern and Eastern Provinces stand out as regions with high concentrations of poverty. This is true both for monetary and non-monetary measures of poverty such as education, nutrition, and access to services. Areas with higher poverty rates also tend to have a high share of the bottom 40 percent.

"In addition, two districts (Nuwara Eliya and Badulla), which make up a large portion of the estates, are home to 10.7 percent of the poor population."

In paragraph 217, about the onetime conflict affected areas, the World Bank report says the following:

"Poverty rates are highest in portions of the Northern and Eastern provinces, which were at the center of the conflict. The highest poverty headcount ratios at the district level are found in Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Kilinochchi."

Regarding the plantation and Sinhalese-majority Monaragala District (paragraph 235), in which 57 percent of the population (exclusively Sinhalese) engages in agriculture, the report comments the following:

(Quote) Persistent high poverty rates in Moneragala are related to its strong reliance on agriculture and relatively little diversification within households to other industries. Moneragala is the second largest of the 25 districts in Sri Lanka, with relatively low population density (82 per square kilometer compared to an average of 331 for the country as a whole in 2014). Moneragala is home to tea, rubber and coconut plantations and a large number of small holders, with 34 percent of households cultivating paddy land compared to 18 percent for the country as a whole. As such, it is mostly an agricultural district; 57 percent of the workforce engaged in agricultural activities, compared to 31 percent for the country as a whole, while only 32 percent of workers are in services compared to 43 percent for the country as a whole (LFS, 2012). Moreover, it has a relatively high share of self-employed agricultural workers and unpaid family workers, and relatively fewer non-farm or wage employees. The relatively low density of the population coupled with the high reliance on agriculture suggests that households in Moneragala are less diversified, and as such, are especially vulnerable to agricultural price fluctuations and have few alternative sources of income. (End Quote)

What is presented in this Analytical Note is the true nature of poverty engulfed by all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.

Though remarked briefly, President Rajapaksa was bold enough to declare the truth that many political leaders in his country are either reluctant or failed to disclose.

Published by HT Digital Content Services with permission from Asian Tribune.

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Publication:Asian Tribune (India)
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Feb 6, 2020
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