Old age allowances grossly inadequate
Shamsul Huda, a beneficiary of the government's social safety net programmes, lives in a rickety little tin- shack in Noboganga area under Paba upazila of Rajshahi.
With a mud-oven and two bamboo benches out front, the ramshackle structure resembles a shop more than it does a home.
However, this is with good reason as Huda once used to sell tea and dry food items from the stall.
"But it has become by home now," the 82-year-old said while describing how the government allowance he receives has fallen short of protecting him from complete poverty.
Huda was 65 when he first started getting an old age allowance from the government in 2005. The shop still provided an income at the time and his sons where there to help out too.
"I was doing well back then with all these helps," he said.
But even though the monthly old age allowance was increased to Tk 500 from Tk 180 in fiscal year 2016-17, Huda's growing age and deteriorating health eventually caught up to him.
Having suffered from asthma from an early age, Huda was forced to shut down the tea-stall as smoke emissions from the mud-oven would worsen his condition.
Huda needs to buy two asthma inhalers costing about Tk 250 apiece each month and seeing as he receives three-months of allowance at time, all the money is usually spent on his treatment.
Due to the prolonged wait between disbursals, he often has to buy the inhalers on credit or get his sons to pay for them.
"What can you do with Tk 500 these days anyway? It gets finished before it even comes to my hand," said Huda, who requires other medicine as well.
Local doctors have advised him to seek better treatment but doing so is seemingly impossible given his current financial capacity.
"So, I am somehow surviving the agonies of chest congestion with the help of low-cost inhalers. Only death can cure my problems," he told this correspondent.
While agreeing that getting the allowance is still better than nothing, Huda said it must be raised in order to better serve its purpose.
According to officials of the local district social services office, around 96,635 people in the district are getting old age allowances.
Of these individuals, 39,349 are women, including the widowed and destitute, while 45,249 people get allowances for being financially insolvent with disabilities.
Besides, some 183 hijra and 393 Bede people are also getting government allowances. A number of government institutions are engaged in implementing the state's Tk 107,610 crore social safety net programmes.
These include cash transfer programmes, namely the old age allowance, allowance for widowed, distressed and destitute women, and allowance for financially insolvent persons with disabilities.
The government has allocated Tk 39,637 crore in the current fiscal year for cash transfer programmes, which also include pensions for retired government employees and their families.
Meanwhile, the state's total budget for old age allowances is Tk 3,444 crore for the ongoing fiscal. The government aimed to provide the money to 57 lakh senior citizens this fiscal year, up 16 per cent from the previous year.
Similarly, the allowance for widowed, distressed and destitute women increased to Tk 1,495 crore while the number of recipients rose 20 per cent to 24.75 lakh this fiscal year.
This correspondent spoke to nearly 17 people who were enjoying various government allowances, especially in Rajshahi, a northern division. Most of them shared similar stories.
Huda went on to say that he has two sons and one daughter that have their own family struggles to deal with.
"They cannot help me all the time," he said.
Still though, his youngest son looks after him by providing three meals a day, clothes to wear and emergency treatment when needed.
Lacking a smartphone of his own, Huda receives his old age allowance through mobile financial services on his son's device.
Huda had withdrawn his allowance just days ahead of the recent Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations and offered to his son to pay for any expenses. However, his son denied the gesture and insisted that he spend it on himself.
"So I bought a shirt, lungi and paid some medical bills," Huda said.
Not everyone is as lucky to have a supportive family though as this correspondent found that few people who receive disability checks are on good terms with their relatives.
A 48-year-old beneficiary, preferring anonymity, said his family only behaves good with him for three days a month, namely the day before, the day of and the day after he receives an allowance for being a financially insolvent person with disabilities.
"They don't take care of me on other days or even let me spend the money. They keep it all in exchange for meals," said the man who is just one of the 18 lakh people getting allowances under the cash transfer programme for financially insolvent disabled persons.
The government has allocated a budget of Tk 1,820 crore for the programme this year.
The man used to sell peanuts to earn a living but eventually became confined at home as people constantly humiliated and stole from him due to his disability.
"If disabled were given enough money so that could live alone, they could have enjoyed the government benefit more," said Sheikh Abu Tarek Mukul, president of the Badhan Protibondhi Shangstha.
Rezia Begum, another resident of Noboganga, said her old age allowance seems like a drop in the ocean.
"I cannot say that the allowance isn't helping me survive, but for an honourable life the amount needs to be increased," she added.
Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor of economics at the University of Dhaka, said the allowance and allocation for each recipient of social protection programmes should be increased.
"The allowance is inadequate to make a positive impact on low-income people considering the current inflation rate," she said at a discussion held by Bangla daily Prothom Alo.
"So, allowances should be inflation adjusted," she added.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) recently stressed on the need for increased allocations for social safety net programmes in its recommendations for the budget for fiscal year 2022-23.
"Given the high-level of food price inflation and rise in living costs, the government should increase the allowance, particularly for the elderly, widows and marginalised women," the CPD said.
The independent think-tank proposed that the government raise the allocation to Tk 1,000 per recipient and include 20 lakh more people under its coverage.
"This should increase the coverage of widows, oppressed women and physically handicapped people. The programme should cover eligible beneficiaries of all upazilas," it said.
The civil society organization also suggested expanding the coverage of social protection schemes to urban areas.
"In the national budget for FY2022-23, the government should raise the allocation targeting slum dwellers, floating people, pregnant women, and similar marginalised groups," the CPD added.
It also recommended introducing social protection for workers and initiatives to implement a universal pension scheme.