What are those problems?
I feel there are three crises. Firstly we have entrapped Bangladesh in a one-dimensional development vision. Our concept of development is massive infrastructure. But there are many indicators of development. Where do we rank in the health index? People are spending more from their own pockets for health services and the quality of service is falling. Pollution is leading to an increase in health risks, the quality of education is deteriorating. Paying due attention to these matters remains outside of our development vision. This predicament is not just a crisis, it is a self-designed trap. We have moved far away from the vision of equitable development.
Secondly, there is the crisis of political management. This has been carrying on for long. Merit and efficiency are not being valued because everything is carried out on political considerations. Everything is being done on partisan considerations. There is an economic fallout to not giving due value to merit and efficiency. Earlier the salaries and allowances of civil servants was less. Now they are being given excessive benefits and facilities, for whatever consideration. The question is, has the efficiency of the bureaucracy increased? The situation is clear from the ADP implementation. Lack of efficiency, uncontrolled expenditure, delay in completing projects in time -- all this continues. Investment is stuck at 22 to 23 per cent. From so long ago we have been hearing about public-private partnership initiatives, but no progress has been made in this area.
Thirdly, there is the collapse of the social capital structure. This has happened due to political reasons. Social capital had been considered our main capital in the past. It has a vital role to play in the development process. Our population now no longer jumps spontaneously into social initiatives. People have become wary because of political divisions, clashes, violence, various seen and unseen fears. Many people have just lost all initiative simply to avoid the Digital Security Act or police harassment. The local government system functions as the main vehicle of social capital, but this has been destroyed by party symbols being used in local government elections.
The prevailing economic situation has mounted pressure on the poor. What immediate steps do you think can be taken to make this pressure somewhat tolerable?
There are certain programmes running to assist the poor. In the present circumstances, it is not only the poor, but the middle class too who are under pressure. There are no statistics about how far the state of poverty has deteriorated due to corona, but the long lines in front of the TCB trucks speak volumes. This is a visible indicator of poverty. In the rural areas, 6.25 million (62.5 lakh) poor families are being provided with rice at low prices. In the prevailing situation, attention must be paid to the urban poor. TCB activities must be increased. Efficiency in this area must be increased too. It is a serious problem determining who to provide the assistance to and a list needs to be drawn up for the purpose. This must not be done from the party perspective. There are many NGOs who are skilled in this regard. It is imperative to put them to work.
There is another thing that the government can do. Presently the government provides stipends to 7.8 million (78 lakh) students. This money goes to the families through the banking system. That means there is a working system in place to reach around 7.8 million families. If that stipend amount is increased, the families will be benefitted. Or as a temporary measure even, financial assistance can be sent to those families for a specific span of time.
There are differences over the facts and figures concerning how far poverty has increased due to corona or how many poor people have become ultra-poor. Accurate fact and figures are required if the poor population is to be provided with assistance or if allocations are to be made for them. How do you view these shortcomings in accurate and credible data?
It is true that there are shortcomings in data. Then again, there is the question of whether the government will work according to the data that is available. Their intention is important here. We have carried out work of our own on understanding the state of poverty during corona, the numbers of poor people, the nature of new poverty and so on. Others have also worked on this. The government at the time said they would carry out a survey, but two years have passed since then and they have done nothing. The capacity and competence of our bureau of statistics has increased considerably, but they have to function under political authorities. They have to work in accordance to the government's wishes. It is up to the government what work they will do or what work they won't do. The biggest problem is that the government is uncomfortable with any data that does not match its development narrative. Actually there should be no dilemma over data. And the world of data should be freed from any corruption.
The budget lies ahead. Which areas of the budget will be in your sights this time?
The budget has two sides. One is about allocations. The other is the budget narrative. The government's policies and strategies can be discerned from the latter. I have already mentioned the two challenges of present times -- dealing with the present crisis and holding on to the economic advancement. People are suffering. Extra attention needs to be paid to social security. One thing must be kept in mind, food prices are not the only concern. There are many things outside of food that place a lot of pressure on people. They are having to spend a lot on electricity, education and health. It is to be seen how far the budget has initiatives to relieve these pressures. Let me take this opportunity to point out that there are many small areas to relieve people's sufferings. Let me cite an example. The amount people are charged to transfer money through mobile financial services, can easily be reduced. The government has talked about cost cutting by prioritising project selection. I want to closely observe which projects the government prioritises and which projects it drops. It must be seen what initiatives the government adopts to curtail unproductive expenditure or what directives the government gives to control luxury items and halt unnecessary foreign trips.
Many people feel that the sector most harmed by corona in our country has been education. What do you think should be done to make up for these losses? What would you advise?
While we have to be cautious about education, we also have to be courageous. The deficit in learning due to corona is due to the dropping out from education. This deficit in learning can create a serious problem. From PPRC we carried out a survey with BIGD. We saw that the deficit in learning at the primary level was 21 per cent, at the secondary level, 25 per cent. There are no visible initiatives to make up for this deficit. I feel a special project needs to be taken up to address this. There should be an allocation in the budget for this. How it will be implemented can be worked out later. And the initiative to address this deficit in learning will not be school-based. The initiative will have to be taken at a community level. This will be successful if NGOs are included in the initiative.
As I mentioned before, the learning deficit is relatively highest at the secondary level. Yet the secondary level is the most important to ensure quality education. Many people enter the job market from here. I feel that a mega project should be taken up to improve the standard of education at the secondary level. While 97 per cent of the primary schools in the country are government, it is quite the contrary in the case of secondary schools. Here almost 90 per cent are non-government. There needs to be a change here. We see that MPO inclusion is not yielding any results. It serves to simply step up government interference in the schools. There are many schools, but the crisis is about good schools. The matter of MPO inclusion needs to be reconsidered. At the secondary level, the number of fully government schools needs to be increased. The government can take up a mega project to initially establish 500 to 1000 fully government schools in various districts and upazilas of the country. If this can be done, there may be some tangible results.
Another requirement is, in the budget allocated by the government for education, there should be clear mention of how much of it is for infrastructural development and how much for improving the standard of education.
Corona brought corruption, inefficiencies and many problems in our health sector to the forefront. In the context of the budget, do you have any specific recommendations about the health sector?
The problems that you mentioned are there. I am in favour of placing importance on one particular matter and that is urban primary healthcare. There is hardly any healthcare for the urban poor and working class. Most of the poor people have to pay for treatment from their own pockets. A mega project should be taken up for urban primary healthcare. In India, the most successful initiative of Delhi's health sector is their urban primary healthcare initiative. These are known as the Mohalla Clinics. Another thing is, we have health complexes in all upazilas, but not in the sadar upazilas. There need to be health complexes in all the sadar upazilas. There can be budget allocations for these two areas.
What do you think about the present economic thinking and concepts in running the state? Do you think we need a change in our economic management and policies?
Those who are involved in economic policymaking and management in our country, are focused on macroeconomic indicators like the GDP, balance of payment, exchange rates and so on. What we consider as the middle economy, that is, the SME sector, cottage and small industries, always remain outside of policy support. These industries are at the middle of the supply chain. Macro-economy may be able to create the ultra-wealthy, but there will be no equitable development. One of the major challenges in the days to come is creating new drivers of growth and this can be done through the middle economy.
We basically consider agriculture as the tool of food security. Agriculture must be transformed into the driver of growth and policy support must be provided accordingly. We must bring about significant change in our economic thinking by bringing forward the middle economy. The time has come to completely change our concepts of economy and our development visions. We must work with new development visions. We must move away from dimensional economic visions. We must pay attention to remove the deficiencies in equitable development.
Thank you too