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Crisis-hit families in Colombo: From bad to worse

17 Jul 2022

  • Understanding and supporting urban poor families in Colombo in crisis
By Colombo Urban Lab The economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka has affected almost every home in the country in some way, but for certain communities, like the working class poor of Colombo, the impact has been devastating. Even in the event they recover from it, the long-term implications cannot even be comprehended. The onset of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 disproportionately affected working class poor households in Colombo. Many who relied on daily wage work were no longer able to go to work following the imposition of lockdowns, which resulted in many households losing their access to income. Not only did this reduce their cash in hand to spend on food, but the situation was also exacerbated by high food inflation, which made food even less affordable to households.  In addition to food-related expenditure, there are also other monthly expenses that stress already-stretched household budgets, such as utility bills, rent, mortgages, vehicle leasing, loans, children’s education and tuition, transport, medicines, etc. What is important to keep in mind is that low-income settlements in Colombo experienced greater food insecurity even before the pandemic, with 72% of households being food insecure. Women in low-income households in Colombo were more likely to be underweight or overweight, with higher instances of blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and anaemia when compared to their rural counterparts.  Low dietary diversity and poor nutrition among the urban poor was largely attributed to the high cost of living in Colombo, with both food expenditure and non-food expenditure being more expensive in Colombo. Food woes Two years later, the economic crisis has undone whatever recovery was made since Covid lockdowns were lifted. A sharp increase in the price of gas means that many households have switched to cheaper, alternative methods of cooking. Some houses switched to kerosene, but now find that they cannot spare the time to stand in kerosene queues for long periods of time in order to acquire it.  The wood-fire stove was also an option considered by many households, however, given the spatial limitations in their houses, along with the strong fumes that are emitted from wood-fire stoves, it was deemed unsuitable for most. The most popular choice for many households is the rice cooker, with many cooking all their meals – and even preparing tea – in it. However, for houses with arrears in electricity bills from the Covid lockdown period, when they did not have the ability to pay, a rice cooker represents a higher electricity bill – a luxury not many can afford. Some houses have seen a doubling in their electricity bill since they started to rely on the rice cooker for their meals.  Food inflation reached a record high of over 30% in April, a figure that has not been seen in Sri Lanka since August 2008. The diminishing value of money has made it even more difficult for low-income families to afford healthy and nutritious meals. The longer-term impact of this on health and productivity have yet to be seen, but is likely to be severe, especially at a time when medicines and medical equipment are in short supply. Fuel woes The shortage of fuel has also resulted in many not being able to afford transport. Families that rely on transport to commute to work, or to take their children to school, are also looking for alternative ways to travel or to cut back on items of expenditure such as these.  The last few weeks alone – with fuel being completely unavailable, unaffordable, or requiring at least four days of queueing – have had a devastating impact on families, including those who were somehow managing to get by through whatever income they received from their livelihoods. For example, for those who ran grocery shops from their homes and relied on their own transport to procure goods to sell in the shop or three-wheel drivers, running out of fuel has meant that their households have had zero income coming in, with no savings to fall back on.  Families have pawned whatever they can, cut back to one meal a day, stopped tuition classes and online classes for children, halted essential medical treatments or medication, and sold assets such as bikes and three-wheelers just to be able to survive. No fuel for just one week can result in the complete devastation of a household in these communities.  Furthermore, it is not just a handful of households impacted in this manner – according to the Urban Development Authority (UDA), there are around 65,000 low-income households in Colombo.  Supporting the urban poor How must the State and the donor community support the urban poor of Sri Lanka? Any recovery or support to these communities must understand the various ways in which the crisis, as well as the Covid-19 lockdowns, have affected their households and livelihoods and see how they are intrinsically connected to infrastructure, gender, labour, etc. It also requires support and policies that go beyond one type of support, such as targeted cash transfers for a few months, as the crisis is beyond that type of support.  Any support to communities must be universal to every household below a particular income or need threshold and not targeted as that would only exacerbate existing divisions in communities and favour some over others based on political affiliations, ethnicity, etc.  Furthermore, communities’ needs at present are beyond the point of targeted measures and a realistic understanding of the household budget must be reached before determining the threshold. For urban poor households, our research shows even those with a monthly income of Rs. 50,000 are struggling to make ends meet today. This understanding will only be reached with meaningful and robust consultations at a community level, and with the active participation of women. What are some of the types of support that communities in Colombo need? While the list is a long one, we list below three key recommendations for the immediate term that are derived from various consultations with community members. 
  1. Addressing nutrition, not hunger 
Approaches to calculating food expenditure must show an appreciation for dietary diversity and cultural practices of cooking, as well the varied nutritional needs and demands of households.  Dry rations packs to households alone will not fully meet the nutritional needs of households which will place a burden on the health sector in the longer term. Nutrition levels in children can also be targeted through meal programmes at every school irrespective of whether they previously had a school mid-day meal programme or not.  While this would ease the burden on the families who have to send food for their children every day to school, it would also provide a daily access to nutritious meals the children may otherwise not receive. The current allocation of Rs. 30 per school meal is not sufficient to secure a nutritious meal and should be revised in order to ensure that this meal can account for dietary diversity and cost. 
  1. Goods instead of cash/vouchers for food
Given the rapid increase in the price of goods, a system of a basket of goods being available to households as opposed to a certain amount of money/vouchers, as that amount may purchase fewer goods as the cost of living increases.  If households are guaranteed a certain amount of rice, pulses, vegetables, fruit, milk, and eggs every week for at least one year, for example, it would enable them to continue to buy the same quantities of food, irrespective of inflation, and, instead of only eating food that addresses hunger such as those that are carbohydrate heavy, have a nutritious diverse plate that includes protein and fibre.  However, households have needs beyond food expenditure which require cash in hand. These range from rent and utility bills, transport, and medicine, to children’s education, loans/mortgages, and everyday items like soap and clothes. We recommend a minimum of Rs. 25,000 per household per month for at least one year in the form of cash transfers for these non-food expenditures. 
  1. Lessen the burden 
Many urban working class poor communities are struggling to pay utility bills and other debts that have accumulated since the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. These arrears are of such high rates for some families that they will never be able to pay off that debt to the utility companies and the UDA. The UDA also takes draconian measures such as cutting off water supply to households in the UDA high-rise flats in Colombo as a way of making households pay. This places an extraordinary burden on households already struggling to make ends meet, not to mention the effect on people’s mental health. An analysis of the various debt to the State across the various settlements in Colombo must be done, followed by a move towards cancelling the arrears or finding sustainable ways of making those payments.  (The Colombo Urban Lab is an interdisciplinary space striving to produce knowledge on and advocate for equitable and sustainable cities in Sri Lanka)  

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