As the government rolls out a financial assistance scheme in the country to support the poor in the face of the economic fallout of the pandemic, the urban poor are finding themselves in a tight spot.
According to a recently published study, Bangladesh now has 16 million new poor and a lot of them belong to the urban poor category. "The workers' wages declined by 42 percent in Dhaka and 33 percent in Chattogram districts. The decline in income of salaried workers was much higher at 49 percent due to a sharp reduction in demand for the services," reported this daily earlier in April, citing the study.
The study further stated that three percent of the workforce have lost their jobs with a footprint of 1.08 million jobs in the urban informal sector. With income opportunities minimised at best, and gone at worse, the poor are becoming poorer in the city. And their situation, compounded with rising prices of essentials, is becoming grimmer by the day.
There have been reports in the media of families being ousted from their homes by landlords because they could not pay the rent. Social media feeds are flooded with stories of the underprivileged sharing their woes and sorrows, the bleak stare of the hungry faces leaving behind a haunting trace. And these stories of the affected people certainly raise questions about the preparedness of the government to address the situation.
A recent report in The Daily Star quotes Md Murshikul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Hawker Workers Trade Union Centre, as saying, "Our lives are going up in flames, but nobody is thinking of us and how we are struggling to survive. We have so far not got any support from the government. How can we live?"
Only recently has the government announced its plan to disburse financial assistance to 3.5 million poor families. It may be noted here that last year as well, the government disbursed financial assistance among 3.5 million poor families, against a target of five million poor families. The reason for the shortfall was an inadequate database.
Earlier this month, the government started extending financial assistance among some affected families. A total of Tk 8,800 million (880 crore) is supposed to have been disbursed under this scheme, with each family getting Tk 2,500.
However, the number of poor has increased since last year. So why is the government distributing financial assistance among 3.5 million families only? Who will support the additional poor families? And why is the government not targeting reaching five million affected families? Has the government not been able to update the database in the last one year? If not, why? Did the government not anticipate the second wave and its effect on the economy in 2021?
And even the amount of Tk 2,500 financial assistance offered by the government is inadequate. Nazneen Ahmed, a senior research fellow of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, referred to the 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey to explain that a four-member household needs Tk 6,000 per month to make ends meet in urban areas. So, how can a one-off payment of Tk 2,500 pull the urban poor out of the desperate position they find themselves in?
While the current last-minute initiative to disburse social security assistance has not been well thought out, there is another issue at hand: how many of the urban poor is the government supporting through this programme?
Last year, the target beneficiaries of the Tk 2,500 one-off financial assistance included day labourers, rickshaw-pullers, transport workers, construction workers and shop employees, among others; but there have been reports that many falling in these categories did not receive the said aid.
"At this point, we don't really have that many social security schemes for the urban poor. The major initiative last year was the Open Market Sales (OMS). However, the stock is limited this year, so I doubt the government will be using that window," said economist and chairperson of Brac, Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, while sharing his views on this issue.
And there are two major challenges that need to be overcome to reach immediate social safety assistance to the urban poor. The first is the identification and listing of legitimate recipients, and the second is smooth distribution, especially in view of the fact that this year, OMS is not an option.
While discussing the way forward, Dr Rahman suggested the government initiate specific social safety measures with a focus on the urban poor.
"A major challenge here, where we all have to contribute, is to target the recipients properly. And here it seems the government is not taking a very useful approach in the sense that they are mostly looking for support from administrative wings, such as DCs. Also, political actors are being considered to do the listing. However, if you want to make a list of the urban poor, two criteria would be useful to work on: one is focusing on living areas with high concentrations of the urban poor, meaning the slums mostly. We know the physical locations of these places. So, we can move forward in an area-based approach for targeting," suggested Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman.
The other criteria that Dr Rahman suggested is occupation based. The urban poor are involved in various types of occupations, with a high concentration of rickshaw pullers, transport workers and municipal cleaners. Even sex workers have their own organisations for representation. These organisations can be approached to reach aid to the relevant clusters. In this way, the government can move forward with this two-pronged approach to fast-track the listing of the urban poor, who should be included as recipients of the social safety assistance measures.
And while the government cannot go ahead with the OMS of rice due to shortage of stock—the government's rice stock has plummeted to 300,000 tonnes, the lowest in 13 years—it can surely opt for direct cash assistance for the urban poor through mobile financial services.
To expedite the identification and listing of the urban poor, Dr Rahman suggested that the government can collaborate with development sector actors—NGOs and community forces—who work directly with the affected communities. The government should be open-minded about exploring such possibilities to save livelihoods while saving lives during the pandemic lockdowns.
Such collaborations would minimise the possibilities of the systemic exploitation of relief that is so rampant in our country. Collaboration with the development sector can not only reduce the anomalies in listing, involving the development sector actors in relief distribution can also have a positive impact on ensuring fair distribution of the relief or assistance.
The most vulnerable of the urban poor are migrant workers coming from all over the country, who have left behind their loved ones and their support networks in search of livelihoods. Now, deprived of opportunities to make a living, they find themselves trapped in what must feel like an alien city. The thriving economy of Bangladesh, the shining offices, the modern factories, the broad roads, all depend on these workers. Today, in their time of need, they must not be forgotten.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem