Going by Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith's June 5 budget speech, poverty rate, in general terms, has come down remarkably over the past five years from 33.4 % in 2009 to 26.4% as of now. Over this period, extreme poverty, too, reduced from 19.3% to 11.9%. Poverty in absolute terms, that is the actual number of poor people, had fallen from 63 million in 2000 to 55 million in 2005 and 47 million in 2010.
Experts, however, have raised questions about the authenticity of the poverty rate figures, especially for the years after 2010, the year when the last household income and expenditure survey was conducted.
Even so, it is heartening to know that poverty is declining both in relative and absolute terms. The figures provided in the budget speech show that the rate of extreme or absolute poverty has declined by 7.4 percentage points during the last five years.
And it has been claimed that the fall in the poverty rate has largely been due to the government's pro-poor economic measures, which are reflected through budgets that adopt inclusive growth policy by allocating generous funds for education, health, addressing malnutrition, sanitation, with particular focus on the poor and the marginalised in the shape of safety net programmes. The public investments in development projects, infrastructure buildings and so on also create jobs for the poor. In the 2014-15 proposed budget, too, Tk. 15 billion has been allocated to mitigate extreme poverty. People living in the chars and haor areas will get special attention in the budget.
Public investments in health, education, etc., as well as in development projects, do certainly have their long and short term impact on poverty alleviation. But it must also be recognised that the hundreds of Non-Government Organisations (NGO) working directly with the poor to help them out of poverty have their contribution in the poverty reduction statistics provided by the finance minister in his budget speech.
But even after being flooded with all these eye-catching statistics on poverty reduction, can we put our hand on our heart and say that we are convinced? What do these figures generated by academic researches on poverty really tell us about the actual status of the poor in Bangladesh?
Poverty rate, for example, is defined as the ratio of the number of people that fall below the poverty line and the total population. But what then is the poverty line? According to Wikipedia “it is the smallest amount of money a person or a family needs to live on, to buy what is needed.” So, people, who don't have this 'minimum amount of money' fall below the poverty line and should be classified as poor.
This minimum amount of money to live on, too, will vary from society to society and from time to time. What this minimum income is to a person in an industrially developed nation, may be like a fortune to one in a low income country like Bangladesh. What should we call a garment worker? Does her/his income lie above or below the poverty line, or should she/he be called poor person or not? With the ever- rising cost of living the position of the poverty line is also sliding down constantly. So, those living above the poverty line are joining the rank of the poor with every passing day. And those who were categorised as poor yesterday are becoming absolute or extreme poor today.
Now let us see how our poverty researchers define the 'absolute' or extreme 'poor.' According to UN declaration from the World summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, absolute poverty is “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information. It depends not only on income, but also on access to services.”
What percentage of our population are deprived of the above stated basic human needs? Analysing the proposed budget, Zillur Rahman, Executive Director, Power and Participation Research Centre, said about 25 million people live in extreme poverty, while the World Bank Economist Zahid Hossain put the figure at 60 million. Clearly, there is no consensus about the actual number of people living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh. According to 2010 statistics, 31.5% of the total population lived below the poverty line at that time. May we now infer from these figures that the number of today's extreme poor has far surpassed the number of just poor in 2010? Then what will be the total number of poor come to at the moment? And given the shifting trend of poverty line attributable to ever rising cost of living the number is increasing rather than decreasing.
With the widening of the rich-poor gap, especially, driven by the noveaux riches' insatiable greed to grab everything, land is transferring hands fast in the countryside. So, the poor are fast becoming landless and marginalised. They are gradually becoming absolute poor.
The poverty reduction measures and their outcomes as detailed in the budget speech fly in the face of these stubborn realities. More than mere budgetary allocations, what is most needed for poverty alleviation is a strong political will to reverse the rising trend of pauperisation.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.