In the late 1980s, vast differences remained in the wealth and life-styles of citizens in Sri Lanka. In urban areas, such as Colombo, entire neighborhoods consisted of beautiful houses owned by well-off administrators and businessmen. This elite enjoyed facilities and opportunities on a par with those of middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Europe or North America. In the countryside, families that controlled more extensive farms lived a rustic but healthy life, with excellent access to food, shelter, clothing, and opportunities for education and employment. In contrast, at lower levels in the class pyramid, the vast majority of the population experienced a much lower standard of living and range of opportunities. A sizable minority in both the cities and rural villages led a marginal existence, with inadequate food and facilities and poor chances for upward mobility.
Intervention by successive governments has had marginal success in decreasing the differences between income groups. In the rural sector, legislation has mandated a ceiling on private landownership and has nationalized plantations, but these programs have provided extra land to relatively few people. Although resettlement programs have benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, they have not kept pace with population growth. In rural environments, most people remained peasants with small holdings, agricultural laborers working for small wages on the lands of others, or landless plantation workers. Migration to the cities often did not lead to a great improvement in people's life-styles because most immigrants had little education and few skills. As a result, urban slums have proliferated; by the 1980s almost half the people in greater Colombo were living in slums and shanties. Because economic growth has not kept pace with these population changes, double-digit unemployment continued with the poorest sections of the urban and rural population suffering the most. A hard-core mass of poor and underemployed people, totalling between 20 and 25 percent of the population, remained the biggest challenge for the government.
Cramped and insufficient housing detracted from the quality of life in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, most housing units in Sri Lanka were small: 33 percent had only one room, 33 percent two rooms, and 20 percent three rooms. More than five persons lived in the average housing unit, with an overcrowding rate (three or more persons per room) of 40 percent. In urban areas, permanent structures with brick walls, tiled roofs, and cement floors constituted 70 percent of houses, but in the countryside permanent houses made up only 24 percent of the units. The rural figures included a large number of village dwellings built of such materials as thatch, mud, and timber, designed according to traditional styles with inner courtyards, or verandas, and providing ample room for living and sleeping in the generally warm climate. The rates of overcrowding were declining in the 1980s, as the government sponsored intensive programs for increasing access to permanent housing.
Many of the infectious diseases that caused high mortality in Sri Lanka were water-borne, and improvements in water facilities occupied a high priority in government welfare programs of the 1980s and planning for the 1990s. In urban areas, about half the drinking water was piped and half came from wells, while in the countryside 85 percent of the water came from wells and 10 percent from unprotected, open sources. Almost one-third of the well water was also unprotected against backflows that could cause leakage of sewage. Only about one out of three houses had toilets. With help from United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), United States Agency for International Development (AID), Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the Netherlands, the government of Sri Lanka set a goal of clean, piped water and sewage facilities for the entire urban population and for at least half the rural population by 1990. Observers doubted, however, that this goal could be reached in the northern and eastern districts torn by ethnic conflict.
Food was another major issue. Beginning in the 1940s, the government ran a food subsidy program that paid farmers a minimum price for their crops and also operated a rationing system that allowed people to obtain rice at a guaranteed low price. The importance of this program to the people was dramatically demonstrated in 1953, when the state's attempt to reduce subsidies led to food riots and the fall of the government. Since 1979 when the subsidy program was abolished, the government has operated a food stamp scheme that allows people in lower-income brackets to obtain free rice, wheat flour, sugar, milk powder, condensed milk, dried fish, and kerosene for cooking. This program has reached almost half the population, accounting for approximately 7 percent of the state budget. The government also operated supplementary feeding programmes, including a School Biscuit Programme designed to reach malnourished children and a Thriposha Programme to provide for 600,000 needy infants, preschool children, and pregnant mothers. (Thriposha is a precooked, protein-fortified cereal food supplement.)
Despite government intervention in the food market, malnutrition continued to be a problem among the poor, the bottom 60 percent of the population who earned less than 30 percent of the national income. As in so many other sectors, the problem remained worse in rural areas, although urban slums possessed their own share of misery. In Colombo city and district, 1 or 2 percent of preschool children experienced severe symptoms of malnutrition, while the rate was 3 or 4 percent in Puttalam District. Mild forms of malnourishment, resulting in some stunted growth, affected around 33 percent of the young children in Colombo but up to 50 percent in rural Vavuniya or Puttalam districts. Malnutrition also affected adults: one out of three agricultural laborers consumed less than 80 percent of recommended calories daily. This problem became worse after the inflation of the early 1980s that reduced the real value of food stamps by up to 50 percent. Observers doubted that poverty and malnutrition would be alleviated during the 1980s or early 1990s, while the country experienced economic uncertainty and the government was forced to spend more on security matters.
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