Sri Lanka Tackles School Malnutrition with Fortified Rice Program

Mr. Sagala Ratnayaka, Senior Adviser to the President on National Security and the Chief of Presidential Staff, emphasized President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dedicated efforts to alleviate poverty and improve child nutrition in Sri Lanka. Speaking at the inauguration of the fortified rice program for school children at the Ramada Hotel, Colombo yesterday (01), Mr. Ratnayaka highlighted the “Aswasuma” program as a non-politicized initiative aimed at eradicating poverty in the country.

The collaborative effort involves the Ministry of Agriculture and Plantation Industries, the Ministry of Education, the World Food Programme, the National Food Promotion Board and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). The program seeks to enhance the nutritional status of school children, addressing issues such as anemia, memory impairment and stunted growth. Approximately five hundred thousand school children are expected to benefit from fortified rice lunches over an eight-month period.

During his address, Mr. Ratnayaka stressed the importance of nurturing a healthy future generation, underscoring that nutrition is a critical factor in shaping the country’s destiny beyond merely satisfying hunger. He expressed gratitude for the support received from various stakeholders and commended the BMGF for its significant contributions.

Reflecting on past initiatives to improve school children’s nutrition, Mr. Ratnayaka noted that the nutrition program’s roots date back to 2003 with the intervention of the World Food Programme. The ongoing efforts align with President Wickremesinghe’s vision for a poverty-free and healthier Sri Lanka.

He expressed satisfaction with the expansion and strengthening of a program initiated to aid war-affected areas in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Originating in four districts, the program broadened its scope to six districts following the tsunami in 2004. Supported by various ministries and organizations, the initiative has evolved to encompass a wider geographical area, reflecting its continued impact and success.

Following the unprecedented economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty levels in Sri Lanka experienced a significant surge. In response, a stabilization program was initiated, spearheaded by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a primary focus on addressing poverty, said Mr. Ratnayaka.

He further said that over time, Sri Lanka has implemented various programs targeting poverty and nutrition. The Samurdi program was one such initiative, later improved with the introduction of a new program named Aswasuma. Beyond the program’s name, the emphasis shifted from politically driven approaches to a non-politicized, data-driven, and transparent model. A pivotal move was made towards cash transfers, eliminating intermediaries. Surveys and enumerations based on data were conducted, allowing people to appeal or protest. Once the final list was confirmed, cash transfers were directly deposited into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts.

While acknowledging the inevitable challenges associated with launching a new program, Mr. Sagala Ratnayaka said efforts are underway to address and resolve issues, and as the program matures, there is a belief that it will evolve into a robust poverty alleviation initiative. Additionally, the program is supported by Samurdi, which will play a role in the development of people and the human resource aspect.

Moreover, Mr. Ratnayaka touched upon poverty alleviation programs, emphasizing the need for sustainable economic growth. He discussed on-going efforts to stabilize the economy and outlined plans for growth in key sectors such as tourism, agriculture and manufacturing. The focus is on attracting high end tourists, modernizing agriculture and establishing Sri Lanka as a manufacturing hub.

One of the focal points of this growth strategy is the tourism sector. Sri Lanka aims not only to double tourist numbers but also to enhance the quality of tourism experiences. Efforts are underway to attract more visitors and increase daily spending in the country.

The agricultural sector, previously impacted by a fertilizer policy, is undergoing a modernization program. Additionally, manufacturing is set to thrive through strategic partnerships and revisions to trade agreements, such as the upcoming signing of a free trade agreement with Thailand.

Renewable energy plays a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s economic vision, with identified potential reaching about 18,000 Mega Watts. The country plans to export excess energy or utilize it domestically to reduce costs and establish itself as a manufacturing hub.

Logistics and transparency in reform programs are emphasized to ensure a level playing field and attractiveness for investors. The government is committed to maintaining its course and addressing political challenges to unleash Sri Lanka’s economic potential, providing its people with the prosperity they deserve.

Mr. Ratnayaka expressed gratitude for the support and attendance of Minister of Agriculture and Plantation Industries Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister of Industries and Health Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, and a distinguished assembly of individuals and representatives from diverse organizations who participated in the event.

The expertise of Mr. Abdul Rahim Siddiqui, Country Director of the World Food Program, and his team, was acknowledged, while Mr. Palinda Sagara, Chairman of the National Food Promotion Board, played a significant role. Valuable insights were provided by Mrs. Ruchika Sachdeva, Nutrition Lead in the India Country Office of the Global Development Sector of the BMIF. The active involvement of the BMGF team in Sri Lanka, led by Mr. Chandita Samaranayake from Connect to Care, was highlighted. Mr. Neeraj Jain, Country Director of India for PATH, and representatives from the World Bank, WHO, UNICEF, USAID, DIMO, The High Commission of Canada, Sri Lanka Standards Institute, and DFAT were also in attendance. This collective presence underscored the collaborative efforts and support from various sectors, both governmental and non-governmental, in addressing nutritional challenges and promoting well-being in Sri Lanka.

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