The Sri Lankan Food Emergency



Every day, too many men and women throughout the world struggle to provide a nutritious supper for their children. Even in a world where enough food is produced to nourish everyone, up to 811 million people go to bed hungry every night. In 2019, 135 million people in 55 countries were plagued by acute food insecurity. Even more people — one in every three – are malnourished. One of the great problems of our time is to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Not only can the effects of insufficient – or incorrect – food create suffering and ill health, but they also stymie growth in many other areas of development, such as education and employment. But what if the hunger crisis is a result of a flood emergency, which is a result of a forex crash in a country? A similar situation can be seen in a country very near to India, “Sri Lanka”. They haven’t declared them being in a food crisis but declaring their food emergency status isn’t less worrying.


Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced Emergency restrictions pertaining to the distribution of vital food supplies on August 30, 2021, utilising powers granted by the country's Public Security Ordinance. The regulations aimed to give authorities the power to offer vital food goods to the public at a "concessionary rate" by purchasing inventories of critical food items, such as paddy, and sugar, at government-guaranteed prices, and preventing market irregularities and hoarding.


According to Austin Fernando, a retired civil servant who served as Commissioner General of Essential Services in the 1980s, the post rose to prominence after the 1983 ‘Black July' riots, when it was created to ensure that affected families — Tamils who were targeted and attacked — had food supplies and other essentials, as well as to facilitate their movement and return to their homes. “I held the post from 1986 to 1988 and was also tasked to look after the requirements of thousands of displaced in the North and East affected by the conflict,” he told The Hindu.


The issue has made international headlines, with the government's tough anti-hoarding efforts sparking concerns about food security in Sri Lanka, which has a population of 21 million people. Different factors are fueling the speculation, including the country's known reliance on imports for essentials such as petroleum, sugar, dairy products, wheat, and medical supplies, as well as the country's rapidly dwindling foreign reserves, which have dropped from $7.5 billion in November 2019 to $2.8 billion in July 2021, and the daunting foreign debt repayment schedule in the coming years.


The pandemic's devastating impact on all key sources of foreign exchange earnings — exports, worker remittances, and tourism — has exacerbated the economic burden since early 2020. Last year, Sri Lanka's economy shrank by 3.6 per cent. The Sri Lankan currency has declined by 10.1 per cent against the dollar this year, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.


The government’s response is documented by some reports of a food shortage which have been refuted by the authorities. The Department of Government Information accused dealers of creating an "artificial shortage" in a statement in response to international media reporting. The administration has "dealt with the matter" with the latest Emergency Regulations, it claims.


The reduction in the country's foreign reserves was attributable to the settlement of $ 2 billion worth of sovereign bonds last year, according to the statement. Reserves have since risen to $ 3.8 billion, according to the report. Sri Lanka's reserves would rise to $5.3 billion if it took advantage of a $1.5 billion exchange offered by the People's Bank of China, it noted, while staying silent on the country's international debt due deadlines.

As stated by some, this crisis might be a result of organic farming. The fear of a future food scarcity arises from the Rajapaksa administration's April decision to ban chemical fertiliser imports in favour of an "organic only" strategy. Farmers who opposed the change have cautioned that the abrupt switch to organic fertilisers could have a significant impact on production. Tea producers have predicted a 50 per cent decline in production.


Meanwhile, many people, particularly daily wage workers and low-income families, are complaining about not being able to afford or access essentials like milk, sugar, and rice during the current lockdown, which was imposed on August 20 in response to a rapid increase in daily Covid-19 cases and fatalities and has been extended twice since.


Rice, dhal, bread, sugar, vegetables, and seafood prices have arisen multiple times throughout the pandemic, and have climbed even faster in recent weeks. Rice, a staple commodity, costs around LKR 120 (44) per kilogramme, whereas common veggies like onion and potato cost more than LKR 200 (73) per kilogramme. Fish costs about LKR 700 (255) per kilo.


According to some farmers, the quick changeover could result in a major reduction in productivity. "Because organic fertilisers have a lower yield than chemical fertilisers, it will reduce our production and make survival more difficult," said HC Hemakumara, President of the Ampara district joint farmers association. According to a July poll, around 90 per cent of Sri Lankan farmers use chemicals.


Prof. Sabine Zikeli of the University of Hohenheim's Centre for Organic Farming believes that a quick transition to organic could jeopardise a country's food security. "You can't just modify these traditional cropping techniques," she argues. "You need transition times." "The normal period of adaptation in organic farming. Depending on the country, it could be three years or even longer." In 2008, Bhutan introduced a policy of going 100% organic by 2020.


Sri Lanka is running out of foreign exchange, and the money it does have is being used to pay off debts. Its foreign reserves were $2.8 billion (£2 billion) at the end of July, down from $7.5 billion when the administration took office in November 2019. It also owes nearly $4 billion in international debts, on which it must pay interest.


The political opposition, importers, and traders in Sri Lanka are outraged after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclaimed a state of emergency last week, allowing his government to dictate retail pricing for crucial foods and take supplies from dealers as the country's foreign reserves run out.


Rajapaksa, a former defence minister, has selected loyal military officials to high positions in order to retain vital government processes under his control since his victory in 2019. Army Commander Shavendra Silva also chairs Sri Lanka's COVID task force. Other military officers have been appointed to high-ranking ministry secretary positions, as well as the heads of customs and the port authority.


Sri Lanka has been experiencing significant shortages of powdered milk, cooking gas, and kerosene in recent weeks, with residents forming huge lines to obtain these basic products despite the lockdown. Some speculate that the shortfall is due in part to a government restriction enacted in March of last year, which prohibits the importation of motor vehicles, oil, most technological items, apparel, cosmetics, and even spices.


Sugar imports are one of the most expensive products on the country's annual import bill, which is estimated to be approximately 40 billion rupees. Sri Lankans are among the world's largest sugar eaters per capita, consuming roughly 32 kilogrammes per year on average, compared to 15 kilos in developed countries and 20 kilos in neighbouring India. However, only 8 per cent to 10 per cent of that demand is satisfied domestically, with the remainder being met by imports, according to Janaka Nimalachandra, chairman of the government-owned Lanka Sugar Company. Opposition leaders argue that managing Sri Lanka's dwindling foreign reserves does not necessitate handing over the economy to the army.


The 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development were approved by the international community in 2015 with the goal of improving people's lives by 2030. Goal 2 – Zero Hunger - commits the World Food Programme to end hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture. However, the current state of Sri Lanka isn’t that of a hunger crisis, but if this lures out Sri Lankan people, steps will be needed to be taken in order to pull Sri Lanka out of such a crisis.




References:

  1. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/sri-lanka-declares-economic-emergency-contain-food-prices-amid-forex-crisis-2021-08-31/

  2. https://www.wfp.org/zero-hunger

  3. https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/why-is-sri-lanka-in-an-economic-emergency-in-focus-podcast/article36380665.ece

  4. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Sri-Lanka-s-food-emergency-heightens-fears-of-militarization

  5. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/what-is-the-food-emergency-in-sri-lanka/article36327786.ece

  6. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-58485674


Written by Abhivyakti Mishra (m.abhivyakti@gmail.com)

Edited by Mehak Vohra