Provide food, cash aid to ultra poor
Economists have suggested that the government open a hotline service through which ultra-poor people facing food crisis during "lockdown" can communicate their sufferings and the government can take prompt steps to get food to them.
They proposed that the government take steps like sending money digitally to the ultra-poor who would suffer financially during the "lockdown" imposed by the government to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The upcoming budget should be aimed at saving people's lives, the economists proposed during a pre-budget virtual meeting with Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal yesterday.
Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan, CPD Distinguished Fellow Mustafizur Rahman, former Bangladesh Bank governor Dr Atiur Rahman and former finance minister M Syeduzzaman were among 30 economists who took part in the meeting.
Discussants at the meeting informed The Daily Star that the economists suggested that the government go for more allocation for health sector, specially in the tertiary and mid-level in the upcoming budget.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Dr Atiur Rahman said he told the meeting that steps should be taken to provide money to the poor through mobile financial services with the help of local representatives.
If not, the poor people would not heed to the "lockdown", he said at the meeting.
"Those who are facing food crisis can call the hotline and the government will get the food to them," Atiur said at the meeting.
Bangladesh Bank can take steps in this regard, like the way it earlier provided salaries to garment workers during the first phase of lockdown last year, he said.
"This year's budget should be aimed at saving people's lives. Let's save people first so that they do not die from hunger," he said.
Terming the average five percent annual increase in the budget for the health sector "business as usual", Atiur said such incremental increase in expenditure for health will not do; instead, the sector requires a major jump this time.
Earlier, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said intensive care units (ICUs) would be set up in every district but it could not be implemented, he said.
Eminent economist Dr Binayak Sen, research director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), supported Atiur's proposal of sending money to the ultra-poor during "lockdown".
He said it would be enough if there is six percent GDP growth.
Sen said instead of putting greater focus on growth, steps should be taken so that more people can be reached digitally.
Finance Minister Kamal at a press briefing following the meeting said the upcoming budget would not be formulated as usual. It would be made considering the exceptional time of pandemic.
"We need to formulate the budget keeping the current problem which is prevailing globally," said the minister. "We usually do not face such adversity."
All sectors related to life and livelihood would get priority in the budget, he said, adding that they would focus on rural infrastructure and have plans for more allocation for agriculture and health.
"On one side we have to spend more in the health sector and to expand resources, [but] we also need to ensure quality service out of that resource for the people," the minister said.
During the initial outbreak of coronavirus in March last year, poor people were the worst sufferers during the 66-day countrywide shutdown.
Strict Covid restrictions are expected from April 14.
Last year, Tk 1,258 crore was allocated under a stimulus package, which aimed to provide the poor with Tk 2,500 each.
Although the government had initially planned to provide the cash incentives to 50 lakh families under this package, only 35 lakh families received the incentives. And the initiative had to be stopped midway following allegations of anomalies over the list of beneficiaries.
An OMS rice programme was also undertaken last year to allow the poor in urban areas to buy rice at Tk 10 per kg, but that programme was also abandoned because it was not viable without a list of beneficiaries.
A survey carried out by South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) in November and December last year found that 42 percent of 5,577 households went below the poverty line due to the pandemic.