2.4 General minimum needs programmes
Sri Lanka has been operating several welfare-oriented programmes reaching the entire population since the 1940s. The most important among these are the following:
The role of food subsidies will be discussed in the next section. The policy of free public education from the primary upto the University level dates back to 1944. Public investment in education has been viewed as an important equalising factor.1 Hence, expenditure on education has been kept at a high level and facilities extended to most rural areas. Marked gains in school enrolment ratios and literacy rates reflect the impact of this expansion.
The educational system however, had a number of shortcomings as a basic needs policy. Best schooling facilities (both public and private) are still concentrated in the urban centres. The enrolment rates and progression rates and linked with income levels and the drop-out rate is generally much higher among low-income families in the rural sector. The estate sector fares worst in this respect. Moreover, the educational system was basically oriented towards academic skills and little related to the development needs of the country.
Provision of free health services to the population has been the accepted policy in Sri Lanka for several decades. A marked expansion has occurred since Independence. The western medical system is supplemented by the indigenous Ayurvedic system. Basic services have been established even in remote rural areas and a referral system enables access to more specialist services. However, the quality of health services is better in urban areas which are well-served with major government and private medical services. The estate sector again records services of lower quality relative to other sectors.
The achievements of health policies are reflected in impressive reductions in mortality rates and rise in life expectancy (Table 8.9). Some deterioration in public health services has been noted in recent years with the share of expenditure devoted to health showing a decline. The undue emphasis on curative services at the expense of preventive services is an important feature of health policies in the country. It contrasts with the high incidence of diseases arising from lack of environmental sanitation and prevalence of undernutrition and malnutrition.
The success of the above programmes in ensuring a high quality of life in the form of lower mortality and fertility, high life expectancy and adult literacy at a global level has generally been acknowledged.2
The achievements are considered remarkable in relation to the country’s income level. Sen1 notes that per capita incomes would have to be raised by a factor of 1.94-2.26 for achieving the observed level of poverty reduction in terms of income growth. The state has played a crucial role in this process.
Table 8.9 Selected Social Indicators for Sri Lanka, 1946-1981.
The issue may be raised whether the above programmes effectively reached the poorer groups. Richards and Goonaratne2 refer to “the virtual exclusion of the rural poor” from the benefits of the state programme. In my view, this position is not tenable. It is true that only certain categories of the rural poor derived limited benefits. Lipton3 refers to this group as the ‘ultra-poor group’ - who are described as “mainly landless and near-landless people on estates and in (or, as seasonal migrants, from) land-pressured parts of the wet zone”. The proportion under ultra-poverty has, however, been kept low till recently through public welfare services. The situation has been aptly summarised as follows.
This largely corresponds to the position of rural labour families who are devoid of any asset base (especially land) and who do not manage to secure sufficient work opportunities. They are often bypassed by government programmes directed at raising the productivity of the poor.
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