This time the budget had to be prepared amid fears of a global recession. Prior to the budget many of you had advised to place importance on keeping the price of commodities under control. Has that been reflected at all in the proposed budget?
The budget acknowledges the problem but did not take the required measures. The question is, what can the government do to control prices in a free market? The government has to create such a link with the private sector so that no unlawful advantages can be taken. The private sector must be made to abide by the law and it is important to monitor them and ensure their accountability. The budget has no mention of how the government will do this. The competition commission, the consumer rights directorate or the commerce ministry are responsible for this, but the capacity of these institutions is weak. The budget says nothing about this, offers no guidelines.
The government has certain tools to keep commodity prices in control. If any essential items are dependent on import, the government can temporarily or for a year or so lift all sorts of duty from those products. This budget has no such measure. It is essential to know the demand in order to keep the commodity market normal. Based on this, procurement is determined. But we have a lack of data in this regard. As a result, how much of a product is to be imported, how much concessions can be made, what will the outcome of this be -- nothing can be calculated accurately.
Another important point of discussion was relieving pressure from the poor population. How far has the budget dealt with that?
While the number of poor under assistance has been increased from 7 million to 10 million, there are still discrepancies in data. According to a survey run in 2016, the size of the poor population in the country is 20.5 per cent. The number of new poor has increased under the impact of corona. This is not being acknowledged. It is not only the poor, but the lower and middle class who are also under pressure. Their income has not increased. Quite to the contrary, it has decreased in many cases. They are having to cut costs in food and areas outside of food. The effect of this will become apparent in the coming days. The budget has identified the price of commodities as a major problem, but offers no solution.
What are your observations about the allocations for health and education?
Allocations in the education sector, in proportion to the GDP, has decreased from last time. The health sector is the same as before. This allocation has no consistency with the five-year plan. Allocations should be increased in these two sectors, but these are being decreased. No matter what they may say, the policymakers are not understanding the importance of this. If the head of a family cannot spend as must as needed on his children's health and education, these children will not be able to grow up competent, skilled and capable. Now if the government is our guardian and fails to spend in these two areas, then the future population of the country will not be educated and in good health. It is hard to hold on to economic development with such a population. The demographic dividend that is being talked about will last only for another 10 to 15 years. Unless we can invest as promised for this generation, then the aspirations we have for the future of Bangladesh will not be fulfilled.
Alongside keeping the prevailing circumstances under control, it is also important to keep up exports, growth, graduate to a mid-income country and proceed with meeting the SDG. How balanced do you think this budget has been in this regard?
The target of this budget seems very temporary. The immediate problems have been kept in mind, but less important has been given to achieving the targets. There are some areas that deserve praise. For instance, no delay was made in adjusting the dollar value with the market. This will have a positive impact on increasing imports and formal remittance. The budget talks about a 7.5 per cent growth. But it must be seen whether this growth is inclusive. Poverty is a big problem, there is the problem of unemployment, and disparity is increasing. These matters are discussed, but there is no guideline how to emerge from this.
This budget is being termed as business-friendly. What do you say?
I won't call this budget entirely business-friendly. Corporate taxes have been decreased and concessions have been made for certain industries. The formal sector pays corporate taxes. But 85 per cent of our business is in the informal sector and they play the biggest role in providing employment. This sector has been hit hard by Covid. They also lag behind in receiving stimulus. There is nothing for small and medium entrepreneurs in this budget. This budget can be termed as friendly to the big businesses.
There has been a proposal to legalise laundered money. There is an ethical side to this. The question can arise as to how ethical this is. The other question is, do you think the money that has been siphoned out of the country will be brought back as a result of this facility?
The people who have smuggled money out of the country are being rewarded by this decision. They have profited by siphoning off the money and will benefit again by bringing it back at low interest. This is not ethically acceptable. This will give a bad message. The question is whether this will be effective or not. How must money does the government expect will return? Does the government have any record of how much money has been laundered and how much may be brought back? If the government is aware of how the money is being sent out, then initiative must be taken to block this route. Some countries have taken steps to bring money back, but the results have not been positive. Why will the launderers weaken themselves ethically in front of the government? In any consideration, this decision should be cancelled.
If you had the chance to make some amendments to this budget, where would you propose the amendments be made?
The challenges which have been considered in the budget are relevant and important. The advice of many people from outside of the government has been taken. This deserves thanks. At the same time, the impact of inflation has fallen upon many outside of the recognised poor. The budget does not recognise the reality of this crisis that they are facing and that this is a major challenge. Some initiatives must be taken to recognise this and relieve the people of this pressure. Another thing that is necessary is for the government to make the budget more compatible to its own policies and strategies and this calls for placing due importance on health, education and social safety nets.
Thank you too