Money is not a problem, and the government too intends to support the poor in their dire need. What's the problem then? The government does not know who to help out!
According to local think tanks, number of the poor leapt from nearly 3.5 crore to well over 6.5 crore during the 16 months into coronavirus pandemic. From middle class to lower middle class, lower middle class to poor, and poor to extreme poor. And that's the silent but gradual journey down the hill for nearly half of the country's 16.3 crore population.
Ironically, the government has no data yet about this new vulnerable population and no means to reach out to them with support. The poor the government knows of today is through the dataset dated back to 2013. The government would have been in a far better position in dealing with this crisis had the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) delivered the much-needed poverty registry, the National Household Database, on time, in 2017. Sadly, that dataset, developed over the period of 2013-17, is going to be obsolete when it is released sometimes in 2021. Pandemic has changed the poverty landscape, altogether.
As budgetary measures were laid out yesterday, the social safety net, despite being boosted by a fatter allocation of Tk 107,614 crore, held out little or no hope for the new poor who are not used to seeking help.
It's a job that a very few in the world's ivy league of economists would have dared to do, announcing the back-to-back budget of a country caught in the middle of a pandemic that brought the economy and the healthcare system down to its knees in the last sixteen months. Mustafa Kamal is a feisty finance minister in that sense, especially when every hand extended in his direction is for help.
Indeed, he has done his best by setting aside a sizeable fund for social protection. On paper, like the last one, the implementation success of this budget is also going to show: over 80pc of the allocation is spent for providing social protection. But, given the ground reality the government is faced with, Kamal will know for sure, he is giving no good news to any of the new poor.
Aside from the issue of "known poor" and "new poor", an oblique line of the government's preferences will continue to keep separated the population in crisis: protected and unprotected. Protected are those who work for the government and unprotected are those in the private sector.
If we analyse the government response to the health and financial security for all in the pandemic so far, we can see the line of divide all too clearly. The government cared most, if not only, for the public staff and least for the private staff.
Kamal deserved big kudos for protecting public employees financially till to date. Proper medicare is understood to be off the list under the existing circumstances and with this sorry healthcare system; but he certainly did more than he could have to ensure financial security for 14 lakh government employees (Tk 5,125cr in salaries and benefits a month) and over 6.5 lakh pensioners (Tk 1,917cr a month). No austerity was called into practice. Even they were given the Baishakhi bonus (20pc of the basic salary) at a time when sale and celebrations for Pahela Baishakh were called off due to the second Covid-19 wave.
But the worries and uncertainties to grapple with are only for the 75 lakh people who are serving on the other side of the divide, in the private sector. It should have been a huge obligation for the government, the finance minister to be precise, to take extra care of the 22 lakh tax-payers, of whom 86 percent is from the private sector.
Private businesses and service-holders got no pandemic respite from the tax and VAT collection drives from the revenue collection authority. They're made to turn in the tax and VAT submissions even when the lockdown was in full force.
Isn't it very unfair of the government to shield the financial security of only the public employees, of whom only three lakh are tax-payers? But those who pay tax, working in the private sector or running private businesses, are left in a quagmire. They're the ones who faced the job cut, salary cut or went out of business. If the taxpayers don't get protection in their crisis, why would they pay the tax in the first place?
All of us are equal and entitled to equal rights in the eyes of law and under constitution. And, in a pandemic of this magnitude, equal right for all citizens is what matters most.
Sadly, equality in social protection is unreal, at least for now. The new poor and people outside the government have no choice: survive on their own or perish!