Making ends meet in Sri Lanka – urban poor families in crisis in Colombo

Published on 14 October 2022

Director, Colombo Urban Lab

The economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka has affected almost every home in the country in some way, and for the working-class poor of the capital Colombo, the effect has been devastating. Whether they recover from it, and the long-term implications of it cannot even be comprehended.

“We spend more on eating than what we earn. No matter how frugal we try to be, it isn’t possible. We have to buy everything from the shop. Coconut oil is expensive now, coconut is expensive, rice is expensive. Just think how much it costs to buy just those three…How to buy vegetables, fish, dry fish? It takes a lot of money to eat.” Self-employed mother of two from Colombo.

Over the past year we have seen lower middle-class families that were able to make ends meet comfortably slip into poverty, sometimes unable to put more than two meals on the table a day. Food and nutrition were the first to be affected, with education, livelihood, transport soon to follow. The Sri Lankan economic crisis and the severe impact on the households all the way up to even include the middle classes, cannot be addressed with short term measures like cash transfers or ration packs. Instead, policies must look at the intersecting issues and opt for a universal social protection approach to mitigate the long-term impact.

Impact of the pandemic

The onset of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 disproportionately affected working class poor households in Colombo. Many who relied on daily wage work were no longer able to go to work following the impositions of lockdowns, which resulted in many households losing their income. This reduced cash in hand they had to spend on food was also exacerbated by high food inflation (over 90 percent by August 2022), making food even less affordable to households. In addition, other monthly expenses add stress to already stretched household budget like utility bills, rent, mortgages, vehicle leasing, loans, children’s education and tuition, transport, medicines etc.

Deepening existing precarity

Low-income settlements in Colombo experienced greater food insecurity even before the pandemic, with 72 percent of households being food insecure. Women in low-income households in Colombo were more likely to be underweight and overweight, with higher instances of blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and anaemia when compared to their rural counterparts. Low dietary diversity and poor nutrition among urban poor people was largely attributed to the high cost of living in Colombo, with both food expenditure and non-food expenditure being more expensive in Colombo.

The economic crisis has undone whatever recovery was made since Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted. A sharp increase in the price of gas means that many households have switched to cheaper, alternative methods of cooking. The most popular choice for many households is the rice-cooker, with many cooking all their meals, including tea in the rice cooker. However, for houses with arrears in electricity bills from the Covid-19 lockdown period when they did not have the ability to pay, a rice cooker represents a higher electricity bill – a luxury not many can afford. An increase in electricity tariffs in August 2022 has seen bills significantly increase, making this no longer a viable option.

Universal, not targeted support

From a policy perspective, there must be a significant shift in the way that we approach any long-term policies. Civil society organisations have been calling for universal support schemes instead of targeted support as that would only exacerbate existing divisions in communities and favour some over others based on political affiliations, ethnicity etc. Communities needs at present are beyond the point of targeted measures. A realistic understanding of the household budget must be reached before determining the threshold of support schemes.

Approaches to calculating food expenditure must show an appreciation for dietary diversity, cultural practices of cooking, as well the varied nutritional needs and demands of households. Dry rations packs alone will not fully meet the nutritional needs of households and will place a burden on the health sector in the longer term.

Nutrition levels in children can also be targeted through meal programmes at every school irrespective of whether they previously had a school mid-day meal programme or not. While this would ease the burden on the families who have to send food for their children every day to school, it would also provide daily access to nutritious food that the children may otherwise not receive. The current allocation per school meal is not sufficient to provide a nutritious meal and should be changed to secure dietary diversity and cost.

A system of basket goods

Given the rapid increase in the price of goods, a system of basket goods should be available to households as opposed to a certain amount of money or vouchers. If households are guaranteed a consistent amount of rice, pulses, vegetables, fruit, milk, eggs every week for at least one year, for example, it would enable them to continue to buy the same quantities of food, irrespective of inflation, and have a nutritious diverse plate that includes protein and fibre, as well as carbohydrates. Beyond food expenditure, other needs require cash in hand, ranging from rent, utility bills and transport to medicine, children’s education, loans, mortgages and everyday items like soap and clothes.

Finally, policies must address the disproportionate impact that the crisis has had on women and the increased unpaid care work that has fallen on them to simply make ends meet. Strategies to improve urban food security, including community kitchens or urban home gardening initiatives, rely heavily rely on the unpaid labour of women to deliver support to communities. From putting food on the table to running the household to their own livelihoods – women have shouldered a greater burden through this time.

The Colombo Urban Lab is working in partnership with IDS on the Living Off-Grid Food and Infrastructure Collaboration project.


In partnership with
Colombo Urban Lab


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