The economy was under pressure even before the outbreak of coronavirus. For the first time after a decade, exports saw negative growth. Imports also saw negative growth. There was a significant revenue deficit and the revenue shortfall increased the government’s propensity for borrowing. Private investment had already come to a standstill for quite a few years. In fact, most economic indicators had taken a nosedive.
On 8 March, the first COVID-19 case was detected in Bangladesh. And then when the government declared a general holiday at the end of March, the economy effectively drew to a halt.
With the new financial year beginning in July, the economy began picking up again. The government took the bold decision, against all odds, to create a Tk 1,200 billion (Tk 120,000 crore) stimulus fund and in the struggle for survival, the economy is doing relatively better than many countries.
But throughout the year people suffered in the coronavirus-hit economy. Poverty increased. Out of work, people returned to the villages. Disparity widened.
In this period, there have been quite a few startling occurrences in economy. These are the ‘wonders’ of the economy, no doubt.
1. Shootout of the Sikder brothers
It happened on 7 May. Everything was under lockdown and banks were operating on a limited scale. In these circumstances, Ron Haque Sikder, managing director of Sikder Group and son of the group’s owner Zainul Haque Sikder, and Ron’s brother Dipu Haque Sikder, tried to shoot dead the Exim Bank managing director Mohammad Haider Ali Miah and additional MD Mohammad Firoz Hossain. Exim Bank filed a case with the Gulshan police station in the capital against these two directors of Sikder Group.
That is not all. These two brothers flew out of the country in the guise of patients. And the third startling fact of this incident is that while fugitives, these two brothers even appealed for bail. They were fined for this audacity.
2. Innovation in corruption
Bangladesh displayed a flair for innovation in corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was the usual corruption in procurement of protective equipment, in awarding work contracts, and in relief distribution. But to top it all, was the scam in false COVID tests. The Shahed and JKG scandals were the talk of the town. Such corruption did not abate despite the people and the country going through unprecedented hardship. In fact, many grabbed at the life and livelihood crisis as an opportunity to amass ill-gotten wealth.
3. PK Haldar’s audacious appeal
Prasanta Kumar Haldar (PK Haldar) fled from the country at the beginning of 2020. Over the years, in collusion with influential persons, he had taken over financial institutions and misappropriated funds. Then in 2019 when People’s Leasing went bankrupt, PK Haldar’s empire began to disintegrate. But astoundingly, this very same PK Haldar, who misappropriated Tk 35 billion (Tk 3500 crore), informed the court that he would return to the country in September this year, on condition that he would not be harassed.
Even during coronavirus times, this sector (RMG) has been taking extra privileges. They have taken funds to pay the workers’ wages and allowance, but certain sections of the owners are unwilling to pay the workers any annual increment
Such an audacious appeal of a fugitive is unprecedented. But as the court ruled that he would be sent to jail upon return, he has decided to remain overseas and pull the strings from there.
4. Garments sector bounces back
Around 86 per cent of the country’s export revenue comes from the readymade garment sector. It is also a big source of employment in the country. The government’s policies, financial assistance and support is hugely pitched in favour of this sector. And yet they have not learnt to stand on their own feet, or perhaps prefer not to do so.
Even during coronavirus times, this sector has been taking extra privileges. They have taken funds to pay the workers’ wages and allowance, but certain sections of the owners are unwilling to pay the workers any annual increment. But rather shockingly, they had no qualms to inhumanly make the workers come all the way to their workplaces in Dhaka and other areas, and then return the villages and then back again.
5. The bank chairman charade
It began with Janata Bank. At the end of July this year, the government removed Jamaluddin Ahmed from the position of Janata Bank chairman. The behind-the-scene reasons of his removal was an open secret. His special relations with certain clients prompted his removal.
But the case of the Agrani Bank chairman was a bit different. Leela Rashid, Bangladesh Bank’s executive director and Agrani Bank’s observer appointed by Bangladesh Bank, had brought about written allegations against the Agrani Bank chairman Zaid Bakht. She said that she was not allowed to carry out her responsibilities at the bank’s board meetings, was silenced when she spoke and was threatened too.
Bangladesh Bank investigated the allegations and even though these were proven true, Zaid Bakht was appointed for the third time, unhindered. It was Leela Rashid who then opted to move away.
6. GDP obsession
While the entire world grappled with faltering economies during the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics flamboyantly declared the country’s GDP to be 5.24 per cent.
A preliminary GDP estimate is given, based on the trends of the first nine months of the financial year. At the end of the fiscal, it takes a couple of months to finalise that estimate. Almost six months have passed, but the GDP of the last fiscal is yet to be made known. Yet another wonder, indeed.
The bottom line is, this record amount of remittance flowing into the country during these hard times, is indeed a welcome wonder
7. The real wonder
The global prediction had been that remittance would plummet worldwide. Yet in Bangladesh, the growth of overseas remittance is over 41 per cent. In 2019, a two per cent cash incentive had been declared for remittance sent in from overseas.
The question remains whether the expatriates are sending more remittance during the pandemic, or whether they are sending back their balance earnings. The biggest question, however, is whether the two per cent cash incentive is the actual reason. If that is so, that means that so long the remittance coming in through unauthorised transactions was much higher. The bottom line is, this record amount of remittance flowing into the country during these hard times, is indeed a welcome wonder.
* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir