| by Milinda Rajasekera
(October 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty which is observed throughout the world coincided this year with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, a campaign of protest launched in the US against bankers, financiers and politicians accused of ruining global economies and condemning millions to poverty and hardship through greed. This campaign has gathered momentum and it is sweeping across many countries.
In Sri Lanka the IDEP was observed with a programme held in Matara at the Weligama Urban council Hall with the participation of Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, as the Chief Guest. United Nation’s Organization designated this day, begun in 1993, to promote awareness in eradicating poverty and destitution in all countries, particularly in developing countries – a need that has become a priority towards development.
The importance of eradicating poverty becomes clear when the effect of poverty on society is taken into consideration. Viscount Samuel in his book ‘Belief and Action’ brings out the nature of poverty thus, “Of the many hindrances to welfare in our civilization none is more destructive than poverty. Poverty fetters men’s lives; it lowers physique, vitiates happiness, and evokes resentment and bitterness. From the protest and struggle against it springs the widespread social unrest, which is one of the main causes of the uneasiness and instability of our times.”
It was the late President R.Premadasa’s poverty alleviation programme, ‘Janasaviya’ that marked the beginning of an organized effort to alleviate poverty in this country. Although it did not succeed in fully realizing its objectives, yet it served to relieve a wide section of people of their burden of poverty. The People’s Alliance Government that assumed power in 1994 replaced the former with the ‘Samurdhi’ programme which declared as its objectives the alleviation of poverty and creating opportunities for the youth, women and the disadvantaged. The main thrust of the programme constituted consumption grants to low income households. These programmes, no doubt, have made an impact on the problem of poverty. The statistics show that poverty in this country has been reduced to 8.9 percent in 2010 from 15.2 percent in 2007. Of course, the reliability of these statistics for gauging the level of poverty in the country is called into question by some. They regard the attempt made at measuring poverty by its income and expenditure method as misleading.
It is evident, however, that these programmes have not succeeded in reaching the goal of eradicating poverty in real sense which is a larger objective that involves accomplishment of several other aspects, apart from relieving people of the burden of living costs by granting monthly allowances. The larger goals include provision of expanded access to health and education facilities, proper housing, free time and leisure, security, widened participation in policy formulation, equal opportunities for self-enhancement and so on.
It is not only those living below the so-called poverty line that are deprived of the above facilities and services, but even those belonging to higher income categories. There are hundreds of thousands of families in the latter category, particularly the salaried classes that undergo immense financial difficulties today. They find it hard to supply the needs of their families. The major part of their incomes is spent on children’s education and medical requirements, the costs of which have risen very high in recent times. What is left for spending on food and other essential needs is awfully inadequate. The result is widespread malnutrition among children and adults.
It is these handicaps experienced by the disadvantaged sections in countries that have found expression in the ongoing protests on a global scale. These protesters are particularly annoyed by the gap between the haves and have-nots that keeps widening despite various poverty alleviation programmes and pious intentions expressed by political leaders to eliminate or reduce these disparities and to relieve those disadvantaged of the burden of living. They see that the existing economic order makes the rich richer and poor poorer.
Their anger grows when they observe that those handling the centres of financial activities adopt corrupt and fraudulent methods to satisfy their greed for wealth and luxurious living. Instead of diverting a fair and reasonable proportion of the income they make, more often than not, at the expense of the ordinary people, to improve the lot of the disadvantaged sections that sink in the mire of penury, they utilize their huge profits to bask themselves in the lap of luxury and extravagance.
A tinge of jealousy spurring some of these protesters on cannot be ruled out. This is an impulse, though unhealthy, that inexorably springs in the human heart. When Marx presented his political philosophy of socialism advocating equality of opportunity and equal distribution of wealth as its main theme, it was condemned by some as a theory that sprang from jealousy and hatred of the rich. But the validity of that theory dawned on the people and their agitations and protests compelled governments to adopt measures to eliminate social injustice the existing systems spawned. Although Marxism as a movement suffered setbacks around the world in recent times, the social injustices it sought to eliminate continued to torment people and it is these injustices that have now been highlighted in the present wave of protests.
Violent and destructive protests have to be curbed, but the real remedy to the present public unrest lies in the adoption of effective measures to reduce, if not, to eliminate the sharp disparities that exist in the utilization of national and international wealth and resources. The ruling authorities in countries – including ours – are now compelled to be alert to the developing trend showing that people are no longer prepared to lie dormant allowing what is justifiably due to them to be frittered away or enjoyed by a minority of rulers, their henchmen and cronies.