– Right to Life Human Rights Center
According to the website of the Welfare Benefits Board, Sri Lanka currently has 31 proposed welfare benefit schemes. Among them, five are targeted in the present welfare benefits scheme. They are, Samurdhi, Elderly Assistance, Kidney Disease Scheme, Disability Assistance Scheme, and Public Assistance.
A recent nationally representative survey by regional think-tank LIRNEasia showed that only 31% of the poorest tenth of the country’s population receives Samurdhi benefits, while a staggering 4% of the richest tenth also receive Samurdhi subsidies.
The Janasaviya program launched in 1989 was converted into Samurdhi after 1994 due to political reasons. The Welfare Benefits Board Act was passed in 2002 to formalize the highly politicized Samurdhi program, but the Welfare Benefits Scheme actually started functioning in 2022.
The process for identifying Aswesuma beneficiaries began in August 2022. The selected temporary lists were published in June 2023 and the ‘Aswasuma’ welfare benefit scheme will begin in July 2023.
Aswesuma provides 15,000 rupees per month for 400,000 poor families and 8,500.00 rupees per month for 800,000 second-level poor families and 5,000 rupees per month for another 400,000 families. It has also been decided to pay welfare benefits of Rs 2,500 per month to 400,000 families identified as transitional families till December 2023.
Currently, an allowance of Rs 5,000 is paid to kidney patients and persons with disabilities, while the senior citizen allowance will continue to be Rs 2,000. The number of families receiving such assistance is approximately 290,500. The total number of families receiving welfare assistance is approximately 2.5 million families. It is more than 40 percent of the total number of families in the country.
The special feature of the Aswesuma Welfare Benefit Scheme is that it is digitalized and the cash is directly credited to the beneficiary’s bank account.
Sri Lanka’s official poverty line, by June 2022, is Rs.13,421. People suffering from poverty are considered to be the people whose family income cannot cover this per capita expenditure.
As shown in the recent LIRNEasia survey mentioned above, seven million Sri Lankans are currently living in poverty. These people belong to two million families. The number of household units is 1.6 million
Protests started in some places recently after a temporary list of Aswesuma beneficiaries was published by the Welfare Benefit Board. Some protesters claimed that the names of a group of people who received Samurdhi benefits were not included in the register whereas the names of those they claimed non-eligible are in it. The government said that appeals and objections should be filed immediately to correct the list. Time was given till July 10 for that and it can be considered the correct method for correcting the welfare benefit system.
According to the government, out of the 1,280,747 families currently receiving Samurdhi benefits, 887,653 families who applied for Aswesuma benefits have been selected for the Aswesuma welfare benefits programme. Those who face no objections will receive allowances from July. Only 62,368 objections have been filed. Disability, kidney disease, and elderly allowances are given as per the old register. About 983,000 appeals have been filed. The majority of them have requested to promote them to the category of higher allowances.
As the Right to Life Human Rights Center, which has been committed to securing the human rights of Sri Lankan citizens for twenty years, we have focused our attention on this welfare benefit scheme during the economic crisis. The main reason is that the economic rights of citizens are a factor that greatly affects the well-being of their lives. Although the Aswesuma programme appears to be progressive, civil society must involve in advocacy for further improving it and correcting the errors in targeting the poor.
“Poverty is not just an economic problem; it is also a human rights problem.” – UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston.