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Where are the people’s fortunes?

  • Published at 06:03 pm June 11th, 2019
Life is still a struggle MAHMUD HOSSIAN OPU

Is the story of prosperity only fiction?

The season should have brought happiness to the farmers, but it has instead snatched away the smiles from their faces. Harvesting rice, the country’s largest community has been angered by its price fall.

Isn’t it a penalty for abundance, which is otherwise a blessing?

Bangladesh is also ahead of most countries in having abundantly the most important factor for development, be it for production or consumption, if not for running the state.

This country’s advancement, so far banking on three major sectors outside agriculture -- RMG, remittances, and micro-enterprises -- is credited to its available manpower. We have used an atrocious term, “cheap labour” to emphasize comparative advantage in business and foreign trade.

More than 100 to up to 1,000 applications against a post advertised for hiring a good hand indicate how many of the applicants are absorbed in the formal sector.

Just for having a higher working-age population, it would be naïve to conclude that the country has already reaped the benefits of “demographic dividend” the way it was argued that relaxing the rules for classified loans would reduce the actual volume of default loans.

Money, it seems, is cheap in this country -- so much so that you don’t need to return public funds if you can take it as loans and embezzle it cleverly, not to mention the non-refundable nature of kickbacks and extorted amounts.

Luxurious malls pulled in many customers holding cash or credit cards during the recent Eid shopping season. A class of moneyed men went to Bangkok, Kolkata, and some other cities for shopping or spending holidays. Who says the people don’t have money when they spend so much?

There are ceremonies of money-making, as held in plundering bank money, manipulating the stock market, cheating with small savers and doubling or tripling the costs of mega-projects.

It took Tk760 reportedly to carry each pillow to apartments of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project, when the market price of a piece itself is Tk300. However, the actual price of a pillow, as charged at Tk6,000 a piece says it all -- how cheap tax-payer money is!

Doubters may look at the official data confirming economic growth of over 8% or at the annual spending outlay of Tk4.64 trillion for the current (2019-20) financial year.

Still, this offers more confusion than clarity, since such figures and technical talks of the middle-income status resonate across Bangladesh and the virtual world, but the people can hardly connect them to their daily lives.

To come out of the mystery of statistical reality by contrasting the trends of “development” with the needs of people’s welfare, if they are the ultimate target of prosperity, we may raise a number of whys.

Why so many beggars all around

The number of poor in the country is still almost 40 million, higher than the population of many countries. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey said the percentage of the poor dropped at a rate of 1.7% a year between 2005 and 2010, but slowed down to 1.2% since then.

We often boast of the rise in per capita income to $1,909 but hardly think of those whose income is far below the average.

In almost all public places, pedestrians and commuters alike encounter other men and women -- some of whom are old and physically challenged -- who seek money to buy food and clothing. In thoroughfares of Dhaka city, “mothers and children” are seen asking for alms from whoever they meet.

The gentlemen and the affluent are annoyed by such “public nuisances” especially in front of food shops, super shops, and other key points of their movement. This is usually considered as an issue of law and order.

Whatever are the reactions to begging, the reality is the presence of a massive number of beggars. It may be a curse, but it cannot be a hobby or a happy choice. Don’t we have poverty of taste, knowledge, courage, integrity, and patriotism as exposed in serious activities of life?

Job crisis, poor education

When Bangladesh’s traditional markets for exporting manpower were either closed or shrunk, an unknown number of Bangladeshi youths attempted to sail for Europe via the Mediterranean or for the US via Central America. Some may have been successful, some died, some were detained in the process, and some trapped here and there.

Apparently embarrassed by the global media coverage of the tragic journey by boat, the ministers curse these young men for their desperation, but don’t admit to why opportunities can’t be created for them.

The guardians who could afford the higher education in the West were sending their children there before looking at the missing rankings of the Bangladeshi universities globally.

Employability of degree holders remains a question mark when employers demand better skills, scaling up productivity and showing excellence.

The number of Bangladeshis who went abroad with jobs declined to 734,000 in 2018 from one million the year before.

Around 500,000 foreigners are believed to have been working in Bangladesh, when almost 13% of the youth are unemployed, according to statistics from 2017. The rate of joblessness among the educated should be much higher.

Thus, it’s hard to ascertain how many of the more than two million people who are coming to the labour market every year find working opportunities to sustain. The higher GDP growth, as recorded in the recent decade, should have spurred the creation of a large number of jobs.

The country registered a growth rate of 5.6% in 2000, when almost half of the population lived in poverty, and when the rate of unemployment was 3.3%. In 2017, when the rate of poverty came down to one-fourth of the population, and GDP growth rose to 7.3%, the rate of unemployment increased to 4.4%.

Zero guarantee of medical care

The human story of a poor father or mother, published in newspapers or on social media, seeking money for some treatment of his/her child suffering from cancer, has unfortunately lost its appeal. There are so many of them nowadays.

Young boys and girls, standing on the streets to raise funds for surgeries of their injured friend compel commuters to give some money, though the donors never know who the patient is.

An old man or a minor girl standing near a mosque urging devotees to donate certain amounts for meeting the cost of removing a brain tumour of a dear one can hardly convince the people to give more.

Is the state so poor that it cannot take responsibility for the treatment of patients of killer diseases? There is no insurance scheme sponsored by the government for such purposes. Such a scheme may be launched for the poor and groups like workers and the destitute.

In spite of keeping provision for providing medical services at nominal charges at the public hospitals, patients suffer for either a shortage of physicians and nurses, or a lack of equipment and medicine. Poor treatment for the poor indeed!

A tiny group with all the money

None of the ordinary Bangladeshis made windfalls from the series of financial scams. The swindling of Tk200bn through share market manipulation in 2010-11, HallMark loan forgery involving Tk40bn, Janata Bank loan scam of Tk 51bn, and Destiny Group cheating 2 million people are only a few to name. Unofficial estimates show the scams affecting 14 banks and costing the institutions Tk220bn.

Big business houses are patronized for accessing bank loans amounting billions. Companies and individuals close to power are awarded licenses and contracts to make more money from public spending and regulatory favouritism.

The so-called small and medium enterprises have not been able to benefit from official facilities including loans, let alone the possible rise of young individuals as entrepreneurs who have no cash to start a business.

The wealth of the country’s top 5% has increased 121 times when the resources of the poorest 5% have come down to less than 1%, according to Rashed Khan Menon, a politician who served the Awami League regime as a minister in its previous tenure.

Investible capital is now concentrated around a few groups of companies that captured 74% of the term loans last year, compared to 62% of such loans they had received in 2011-12.

The share of medium-sized enterprises in receiving term loans decreased to 14% in the previous fiscal year from 31% in 2011-12. This has resulted in a decline in their number to half, and an increase in the number of small enterprises.

Former governor of the Bangladesh Bank Atiur Rahman told this author recently that the state patronage for highly connected “high-flying” entrepreneurs could be one area where one can put more focus.

The big fishes have, in fact, consolidated their position in every sphere of power, including the cabinet, and by holding of the key economic portfolios.

Consumers, growers, tax-payers helpless

Pay and perks for the government officers have been repeatedly revised upwardly when the private sector salaries remain stagnant. For public servants, it is easy to raise benefits spending the tax-payers’ money while the private players don’t ensure a pay hike unless they have huge cash flow or are compelled to do so.

But have we heard of the tax-payers’ voice bargaining with the state actors? There is no pension scheme or unemployment benefits for the commoners, nor has there been accountability of how the public money is spent.

If a higher amount of tax is deposited with the exchequer, it’s close to impossible to get it back. But the big players who want to dodge taxes could live happily as non-tax-payers, and rather manage to receive incentives from the treasury.

If the government decides to provide cash support to growers in the form of procurement of, for example, rice, the benefit is reaped by others having hobnobed with the powerful quarters. The farmers are penalized by unholy syndicates for also growing other crops, fruits, and vegetables, producing milk, and rearing poultry birds.

It is also an old story that when the farmers are deprived of a fair price, the consumers in the urban areas have to buy them at an exorbitantly high price, not commensurate with costs of transportation. A greater risk in food consumption is, of course, adulteration, and the people cannot be free from suspicion that the food they eat is not somehow adulterated.

Cities a mess

Dhaka’s streets went under water after two hours of rains in the morning on Eid day. The whole month of Ramadan saw traffic coming to a halt in most roads and alleys more often than not. The past year was marked by demonstrations for safer roads after deaths of students in road crashes.

The standard of our development is reflected further in the air quality of the cities where many people settle in search for better opportunities. Dhaka dwellers can carry out a maximum of one assignment a day, and they now prefer planning their life to have living spaces, office, markets, schools, and hospitals within walking distance.

Dhaka, perfectly representing other cities and towns of the country, is being consistently ranked as one of the worst cities in the world. Whoever has the scope to visit or even watch footage of other megacities in the world can understand how disorganized our urban space is. 

“The bank of the Buriganga does not reflect that we are a (lower) middle-income country,” Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud once observed.

Discipline and order are missing also from the highways. Inadequate and imprudent infrastructure building, the pressure of population, weakness in traffic management, reckless driving -- anything can be blamed, but the public sufferings on the highways can’t be addressed.

Bangladesh’s highways have proved deadly. Almost 30,000 people were killed, and 70,000 injured in accidents in four years since 2015. Stakeholders estimate a loss of Tk400bn a year in road crashes.

Why bribery is almost a rule

There is a tendency to generalize that automation and digitization would automatically bring down corruption. Such assumptions lack importance to human factors that need to be free from unethical practices.

During the selective drives by the Anti-Corruption Commission, an organization which is criticized for alleged bias and witch-hunting of opposition leaders, it is often revealed how extensively bribery is as an accepted practice.

Former finance minister AMA Muhith called it speed money, meaning the people have to buy regulatory services they are entitled to free of cost.

The country has routinely found itself among the most corrupt countries, ranked by Transparency International, in the past two decades. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, too, has placed Bangladesh in 176th position among 180 countries.

Individual entrepreneurs and organizations, in many cases, try to avoid too many official formalities, seeking services via private sector “mediators.” Outside the red tape, they still have to face tolls almost at every crossing they have to pass for transportation of goods, and pay a “muscle-man” for opening an office. A common man has to meet an unofficial toll collector while returning from Karwan Bazar kitchen market in downtown Dhaka in the evening.

The citizens’ attempt to escape official hassles gives birth to a nexus between a section of public servants and the private parties concerned. This is something which is not devoid of corrupt practices that contribute to loss of credibility of public institutions.

Economist Sajjad Zohir sees a loss of control over the country’s basic resources, and warns that higher growth may not benefit the people. “If the economic growth is spurred by investment and its profit is repatriated to other countries, for whom is this growth then?” he has explained to this author.

This reality is contrary to what our independence leaders promised the people -- Bangladesh would be a republic. Equality was one of three key principles enshrined in the proclamation of independence by the Mujibnagar government.

The people’s theoretical ownership of the state was reiterated before the December 30, 2018 elections, only to see the reality the night before the voting.

Society’s common needs and harmonious aspirations can’t be defined when the people don’t have their own platforms through honest representation to speak and work for their welfare. 

Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist and winner of UN MDG Award, DAJA Award and WFP Award. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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