Civil War and Poverty

 by Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

Twenty years of civil war has left the Sri Lankan economy in general and the economy of the North&East Province (N&E) in particular tatters. The civil war had its impact on poverty as well, inter alia. However, the impact of the civil war on poverty differed in different regions of the country. Whilst the N&E Province and the adjacent areas experienced increased and acute poverty as a direct result of the war, the rest of the country did not experience war-induced poverty.

According to available evidence the proportion of the poor in the total population of Sri Lanka actually declined between the early-1980s and the late 1990s. In 1980/1 half the total population was poor, but in 1996/7 only 31% of the population was poor using the higher poverty line.1 That is, the income or consumption poverty seems to have dropped. However, we have to remember that post-1983 poverty data does not incorporate the N&E Province and therefore the decline in poverty in 1996/7 may have been overstated. Yet it would be reasonable to infer that the incidence of poverty declined between the early-1980s and the late-1990s, though we cannot be sure of by how much.

Despite a protracted civil war the poverty level seemed to have dropped primarily because of the growth of the armed forces. The number of personnel in the armed forces and the police increased to nearly 300,000 in the late 1990s from less than 100,000 in the early-1980s. A vast majority of the personnel in the armed forces and the police were drawn from rural areas outside the N&E. Thus the rural employment creation effect of the civil war contributed to reduction in poverty in the country outside the N&E. In addition, the huge rise in labour exports to the Middle East and the export garment industry (which by and large drew labour from rural areas outside the N&E) also contributed to the declining poverty levels in the country outside the N&E.

Though in the rest of the country the incidence of poverty seems to have declined during the decades of civil war, it was the contrary in the N&E. To the author's learned judgment, around 50% of the N&E population could be under the higher poverty line. This is because of massive displacement of rural farming communities, fishing communities, destruction of farming and fishing equipment and private property resulting in loss of livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the N&E and adjacent areas. The Northern Province is the poorest province in terms of per capita income and the Eastern Province is the next poorest.2 According to the Department of Census and Statistics, in the early-1980s Sabaragamuwa Province was the poorest in terms of per capita income and the Uva Province second poorest, positions that are now being occupied by Northern and Eastern Provinces respectively. The per capita income of the Northern Province was LKR 37,206 in 2000, while the national per capita income was nearly LKR 63,003.

According to a survey undertaken by the Council of NGOs in Jaffna District in September 2002, the unemployment rate in the Jaffna district was 28%, while at the national level (barring the N&E Province) it was only 8%. The unemployment rate among women was 32% whereas among men it was 23% in Jaffna. The underemployment rate of 37% in Jaffna was split 60% among women and 8% among men. Although no data exists, it is understandable that the unemployment and underemployment rates in the Vanni (encompassing Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya districts) would be considerably higher than that of Jaffna. The high unemployment and underemployment problems as a result of the civil war are a major cause of poverty in the N&E.

Agriculture (food and cash crops, livestock and fishery) has been the primary economic activity in the N&E Province historically. It remained so even during the civil war in the past two decades. However, the nature of the agriculture sector has undergone a change during the past 20 years. In pre-war times, the N&E was a significant surplus producer of food (e.g. paddy) and cash crops (e.g. onion, chilli & tobacco) and fish products, which used to be transported to other parts of the country for marketing. However, due to massive displacement of populations, laying of landmines in agricultural lands, absorption of agricultural lands cum coastal areas into high security zones, economic embargo on the N&E covering fuel, fertilisers & pesticides, restrictions on transport of local produce to the rest of the country, lack of electricity and severe time and distance restrictions on fishing, a surplus agrarian economy has been transformed into a subsistence/survival economy.

For example, in 1980 the N&E Province produced almost one-third of the total production of paddy in the country, which dropped to a quarter in 2000. In 1980, nearly 40% of the onions produced in the country were in the N&E, which dropped to nearly 30% in 2000. Little more than a quarter of the total chilli production in the country was in the N&E, which had dropped to just 8% in 2000. The Northern Province accounted for 13% of the total potato output in the country in 1980, which dropped to less than 1% in 2000. In 1980 N&E accounted for 56% of the total fish catches of the country, which dropped to just 16% in 2004.

The backwardness and relative deprivation of the N&E economy is not only in terms of per capita income (e.g. in terms of income or consumption poverty), but also in terms of social indicators (i.e. in term of human poverty). For example, the percentage of households with access to safe water in the country (as a whole) is 45%, whereas in the N&E it is only 20% (less than half the national average). Nationally 73% of the total households have sanitary facilities, whereas only 48% of the households in the N&E do. While nationally 17% of babies are born underweight, in the N&E 26% of the babies are born so. Similarly, while 30% of the children under-5 years are underweight nationally, it is 46% in the N&E. Almost 50% of the pregnant women in the N&E are malnourished. Almost 20% of the births take place at home in the N&E, whereas nationally only 4% do so (five times higher than the national average). As a corollary the maternal mortality ratio (e.g. death of mothers during every 1,000 live births) in the N&E is 81, while it is only 23 in the country as a whole.5 (three and a half times the national average).

Furthermore, relative deprivation of basic economic infrastuctures is another dimension of human poverty faced by the N&E populace. For example, whilst 56% of the total households in Sri Lanka have electricity, only 30% of the households in the N&E do (little more than half the national average). Further, while on average there is 1 telephone for every 10 people in the country (as a whole) it is 1:29 in the N&E (almost one-third the national average)6. In the 21rst century world electricity and telecommunications are necessities of human life.

In addition to higher levels of income/consumption poverty and human poverty (in comparison to the population outside the N&E), the N&E population is faced with psychosocial deprivation as a result of displacement from their homes (resulting in loss of identity, self-esteem and cultural degradation) violence, torture, trauma, etc.7

The foregoing are many facets of absolute and relative poverty and deprivation faced by the population in the theatres of war. Having said that, it is important to remember that despite untold hardships unleashed by the gruesome civil war, the N&E population did not experience starvation or hunger as in some other internal war-torn regions such as Southern Sudan. The inflow of foreign remittances from kith and kin that fled abroad as refugees and assistance from international relief agencies and the Government of Sri Lanka mitigated the impact of the war on the people of the N&E.

Since the indefinite ceasefire in effect from the beginning of 2002, the general economic, social and psychological conditions of the people of the N&E are improving slowly but surely. The evidence of this change is emerging gradually. For instance, according to the UNHCR, nearly half the internally displaced people (IDPs) have voluntarily returned to their places of origin in the past 16 months. This is taking place spontaneously against the advice of the UNHCR. The UNHCR would not encourage resettlement of IDPs unless and until the landmines are completely cleared in suspected lands. Yet, the fact that the IDPs are spontaneously returning to their places of origin (vast majority to Jaffna) even before the clearance of landmines is complete is a testimony to the sense of confidence and security felt by the ordinary public.

Moreover, according to anecdotal evidence, the extent of crop agriculture cultivation in the N&E has increased significantly in the past 16 months. Since agricultural crops are seasonal the output data are still not available. However, the fish catches in the N&E were 44,000 metric tones in 2000, almost doubled to 85,000 metric tones in 2002.

The foregoing evidences indicate the enormous potential out there for economic revival and poverty alleviation in the N&E Province. However, un-cleared landmines, high security zones, remaining restrictions on fishing, arbitrary taxation and the general political and economic uncertainty appears to be some of the non-market institutional impediments for the full realisation of the peace dividend in the N&E8. The sooner these non-market institutional impediments are removed the better it would be for the alleviation of war-induced poverty in the North&East Province.

Tamil Times, Surrey, UK, September, 2003

1.Ratnayake, R.M.K. (1998:595), ' Poverty in Sri Lanka: Incidence and Poverty Reduction Strategies,' Chapter 29 in A.D.V. de S. Indraratna (ed), Fifty Years of Sri Lanka's Independence: A Socio Economic Review, Sri Lanka Institute of Social and Economic Studies, Colombo, and Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Consumer Finances and Socio-Economic Survey 1996/7.

2. Mutaliph, Wasantha and Bandaranaike cited in Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna (2003a:4),An Introduction to the Conflict Time Economy of the North&East Province of Sri Lanka, Working Paper 1, May, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo.

3. Sarvananthan (2003a:4)op.cit.

4. Sarvananthan (2003a:6-14) op.cit.

5. World Health Organization cited in Sarvananthan (2003a: 19-20) op.cit.

6. United Nations cited in Sarvananthan (2003a:18-19)op.cit

7. Somasundaram, Daya (1998), Scarred Minds, The Psychologica Impact of War on Sri Lankan Tamils, Sage Publications India, Ltd. New Delhi

8. Sarvananthan, M. (2003b) What Impede Economic Revival in the North&East Province of Sri Lanka? Working Paper 2, June, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo


Posted October 15, 2003