The longstanding, all-pervasive and a completely unknown nature of novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has pushed people in a way that was not known before. Its fallout has touched everything. This COVID-19, with tremendous fallout, has churned our traditional thoughts of development as well, and pushed for newer thoughts.
For a long time we are accustomed to seeing people gather in big cities like Dhaka or Chattogram after losing everything due to floods or river erosion. But this time around, we are seeing something new amid the fallout of coronavirus. We have been conducting researches on the social and cultural effect from the outset of the pandemic.
Our researches reveal, at least 16 per cent poor people left cities, including capital Dhaka, amid the pandemic. At the outset I said multifaceted effect of coronavirus has hit hard the traditional thoughts in many fields. People leaving cities is one of such example. People turn to cities to change their fate. This is the reality in our socio-cultural context. But the coronavirus pandemic has turned everything upside down. Those who once left villages for towns to live well have gone back to their villages. This reverse migration has posed a complex question for us. We have to wait to see whether this is a long-term effect. But surely we can raise a question, how pro-poor is our urbanisation process?
This pandemic has revealed the skewed nature of our points of view. Shortcomings of our economic strategies have become clear. At the same time, the traditional ideas to reduce poverty have been hit hard. COVID has shown to us that there is shrewdness in our thoughts about policymaking. The poor are seen as a burden. No one takes their responsibility. But at the same time, it won’t do without them. The garments industry would collapse if, at this very moment, all the workers want to return to their villages leaving cities. We are agreed only to pay the wages of the garments workers, not to create a better social life. We are not even ready to facilitate their housing, healthcare, education and transportation. This game of shrewdness has been going on for long. The COVID-19 has just revealed that. Those people could not survive in the cities. They returned to that place that they left once after being uprooted. And, once again their uncertain journey begins.
Our research has revealed that those people left Dhaka city as they could not meet various expenses including house rent, medical costs and transportation costs. Dhaka is a highly expensive city to live, say various researches based on different criteria. I would say "It is expensive to be poor in Dhaka.” Villages do have some sort of income sources but the towns lack those. The COVID-19 has brought forth a question – why staying in city would be so expensive?
We observe a huge incongruity between the lifestyle and income of urban poor people. This is related to our overall elite-controlled housing policy. To the housing companies, poor people are not a matter to think about. The initiatives taken by the government also have failed. Bhashantek in the capital is an example of that failure.
The price of everyday essentials alongside the food items have hugely increased. Even if I consider food items, we would see all our gazes are fixed at the rice. Its price is also high now. There is another thing, discussion on nutrition outside of rice. The issue of nutrition is absent when the discussion revolves around the food of poor people.
The COVID situation has been revealing the shortcomings of overall economic policies. We already have created two worlds in education as we have built a few islands of excellence amid the all-pervasive low quality educational institutions. The coveted jobs are being retained by the dwellers of those islands that have all the advantages. And, the jobs the authorities claim to have created are for the people from those low quality educational institutions. For example, we see authorities talking with much enthusiasm about creating jobs for the workers in garments sector. The people from that sea of low quality educational institutions are unwanted in the jobs with better salaries of that industry.
The pandemic showed how precarious the situation is of those people from low quality educational institutions. That is why they were forced to leave the city.
Another shortcoming of our economic policy is its lack of supervision of medium economy. Not only the government, the economists also show very little interest in this sector. Service sector is an important part of this medium economy. There are no safety measures in these sectors. Policy helps and thoughts revolve around micro-economy like garments sector. Even in this time of pandemic, most of the policy helps were lent to that sector. The announcement of stimulus package made for the informal sectors is chained by tough laws.
If we could consider the principles about Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), we would see those who got the benefits are the ones who were getting the benefits from earlier. The connection of this large number of people, involved with the informal sector, with banks is very limited. We could consider the Mobile Financial Service. It should be discussed whether the fee for some of the services of MFS should be so high. There are two problems with medium economy, one is it does not have policy help and the other is the state’s oppression in the form of regulation. Police excesses, local goons’ tyranny are the examples of that.
This pandemic has shaken our thoughts on poverty. The government has shown complacency whenever there was any information of crossing a poverty line. But, this crossing is a matter of statistics. Because of much discussion on that crossing of poverty lines, until now there was no eye on the fragile condition even after crossing that line. At least two more classes have to be identified, one is the solvent class and the other is the lower middle class. As fallout of the COVID, the lower middle class people who were just above the poverty line could not stay in cities. High expenses in lifestyle forced them to leave, and in the process brought forth the shortcomings of our system.
COVID has shaken our conceptions of how we would understand advancements made in reducing poverty. Those people have started returning to cities as economic activities have resumed. But there are greater challenges in the days ahead. One of the major challenges is, widening the scope of works in cities and that too in a short time. Steps could be taken to initiate Food for Work and cash help. It has to be thought to provide policy helps to the medium economy.
We need to deconstruct the process of making economic policies. We have been making policies with the help of experts and bureaucrats. But, we have to fix those after intensive dialogues with the field-level people. There are gaps in the so called participatory plans. In most of the cases, the participation is unilinear. The experts and bureaucrats give lectures for the audiences. Till date, the meaning of participation to us was, we wanted them as listeners. Now, the policymakers have to be listeners. The general people have to be given opportunities to become speakers. All the new possibilities of agriculture have to be tapped. What we need is a development of rural non-agricultural sector.
At the same time, we have to revise and widen the social safety net programme in urban areas. We need new policy of a combination of safety nets and stairs. Nets are required so that people do not fall from the hit of poverty and stairs so that they not only survive, but also can make advances. A big push is also required in urban healthcare system. This is necessary for not only COVID, rather to stop the tendency of pauperisation and for the development of the economy overall. We have to bring back the people who left cities and ensure a system so that they do not need to return.
* Hossain Zillur Rahman is an adviser to a former caretaker government of Bangladesh. This article, originally published in the 22nd anniversary edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza