Comparative poverty in Sri Lanka, from Independence to now

Posted on November 23, 2015  /  0 Comments

Some people are surprised that after all these years of speaking, responding, discussing, I still prepare when asked to speak in public. So when I was asked to serve as a discussant at a CEPA conference on infrastructure and urbanization, I read the papers. They had very little to do with the subject matter, choosing instead to regurgitate the obsolete ideological debates of the 1970s. But one sentence caught my eye: “After seven decades of national development and an expansion of the middle-class over a couple of decades, there are more poor people in Sri Lanka today than at independence.” No reference was provided, but I started digging.

I first looked at the official poverty count which is way down. But then senior people in the present government have challenged the poverty count. I then looked at the food ratio, something I’ve written about in the past. So here are the last two pieces of evidence:

Another way of assessing poverty is to look at household assets. With some kind of phone available in 87.5% of households (up from 1.4% 25 years ago) and a television set in 82.7% (up from 19.6 percent in 1986-87), it is difficult to argue that dire and widespread poverty exists. It is noteworthy that now more households have refrigerators than sewing machines.

Life expectancy data is available from before Independence. It could be taken as an aggregate indicator of wellbeing.
People in poverty are unlikely to live longer than those less poor. In 1945-47, just before independence, the average life expectancy of a male Sri Lankan was 46.8 years; that of a female was 44.7. In 2010 average life expectancy of a male was 71.7 years. Females could expect to live six more years, having an average life expectancy of 77.9 years.

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Knowing the iconic status sewing machines used to have in rural Sri Lanka, I was pleased to see it is now in less households than refrigerators. The fact that the number of households with radios has started to decrease is also noteworthy. But of course, people still listen to radio, in their three wheelers, vans and cars and also on their mobile phones. And the 2012-13 HIES provides the official confirmation that more Sri Lankan households have phones than TVs.

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