Finance minister’s reckless comments on the new poor
The finance minister's recent comments on the state of the "new poor"—the proportion of the population that has been pushed into poverty due to the economic fallout of the pandemic—has left us stunned, not least because of his suggestion that the poverty data published by numerous organisations is "imaginary". In an interview earlier this week, he told The Daily Star that "everything is operating as normal… so why would there be new poor?"
The fact that he did not put forward any evidence to support his claims is a worrying indication of the current state of policy-making. According to the World Bank, the pandemic has pushed the poverty rate from 20.5 percent to 30 percent in Bangladesh, whereas the Centre for Policy Dialogue estimated in April that some 1.6 crore people have become newly poor. Estimates from the Power and Participation Research Centre and the Brac Institute of Governance and Development put that number at a whopping 2.45 crore. However, the finance minister dismissed these estimates and asserted that the government will only accept poverty data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). We are keen to know when this data will actually surface, especially since the Bangladesh Poverty Database has not been completed in more than seven years—the data collected for it has already been rendered useless and the disastrous project has cost taxpayers and donors Tk 727 crore. In the absence of any credible data from the government, if the minister is also not willing to accept the data put forward by experts, then what exactly is our fiscal policy based on and guided by?
Even if we ignore the gaping lack of contextual evidence to back up the minister's claims, we cannot overlook just how callous and devoid of empathy these comments are towards the citizens of this country, who are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. Yes, even emergency situations can be temporary—but what exactly is his implication here? Should those who have been hit hard by the pandemic continue to struggle through hardships, waiting for the "business-friendly budget" to have positive impacts on the economy and create new jobs, without expecting any additional support from their government? Until the economy recovers, how will they make ends meet—are their children meant to go without education? Should they reduce crucial spending on health? Should they downgrade to poorer housing?
The minister's comments are all the more shocking given that the current Covid-19 positivity rate is hovering at almost 15 percent. If we enter into stricter lockdown (which is already in effect in certain border districts), those who will be affected would not be amiss in expecting some empathy and assurance of support from the authorities. In this scenario, an outright denial of their existence from a top policymaker is only likely to add to their distress.