Professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University and editor of 'Shorbojon', Anu Muhammad is also member secretary of the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports. This economist talks at length to Prothom Alo about various aspects of the budget for FY2021-22.
The finance minister has proposed a Tk 6 trillion (Tk 6 lakh crore) budget for the 2021-22 financial year. Growth has been estimated at 7.2 per cent. How far do you think this budget will be effective in tackling the present crisis?
The government does not seem to feel there is any crisis in the country. Due to the coronavirus crisis around the world, new perceptions are emerging about development. Two issues are particularly being given attention. One is to discard any projects which are a threat to people's existence and quality of life. The other is to give healthcare highest priority, relinquishing it from commercial interests. Nothing of this is reflected in the budget. In fact, we see quite the opposite.
Actually many things cannot be understood simply by the size of the budget and various figures and statistics. The qualitative aspect is important. Firstly, the GDP and the budget, like our age, are supposed to increase by the year. But if education and medical treatment is commercialised, if forests are demolished to give way to buildings, if rivers are grabbed and converted to landfills, if consumption of toxic foods is increased, if project costs are inflated due to corruption, leading to a bigger GDP, the size of the economy will certainly grow, but so will disparity. The wealth of a certain group will grow, but poverty and deprivation will shoot up too. Environmental hazards will also increase. Where is the crisis being tackled? The budget proposal simply reinforces the previous trends.
The government says this is a budget of life and livelihood. What do you think?
For the sake of life, the cause of illness must be addressed and there must be affordable medical treatment. For the sake of livelihood, there must be steps to increase safe employment. But in the present trend of development, all sorts of diseases and ailments are being generated by coal-fired and nuclear-fired power plant projects being set up all over the country, even along the coasts, by the way open spaces, forests, rivers and cropland are being destroyed to give way to various projects.
On one hand, projects which give rise to illnesses are sprouting up all over, yet on the other hand the healthcare system is in dire straits. Allocation for the health sector should 6 per cent of the GDP, but even during the prevalence of coronavirus, it is below 1 per cent. And there is endemic corruption added to this.
And livelihood? Just with the stroke of a pen, instead of renovating jute mills and sugar mills, these are shut down, leaving thousands of people jobless. The readymade garment sector has been given stimulus packages, yet over 300,000 workers of the sector have been laid off. No attention is being paid at all to the lives and livelihood of those who make the most contribution to the very foundations of the economy, that is the garment factory workers, the migrant workers, the farmers, the over 50 million people working in the informal sector. So how will lives and livelihood be protected?
What, in your opinion, is the main economic problem of Bangladesh at the moment?
The political clout of the black money owners. You will note that the public, and everything that is public, is in a bad situation. The owners of black money are flourishing at the expense of public transport, education, healthcare, security, rights, lives and nature. At the cost of public interests, Bangladesh has the fastest growing wealth in the world, it also has the worst air pollution, one of the widest spread destruction of forests and rivers and the majority of the population is suffering. All of this is at the cost of the public's hard labour and money. The people are blatantly cheated.
According to research institutions, there is nothing in the budget for the 22.4 million people who have been pitched afresh into poverty. But the finance minister does not even admit the existence of new poor.
What is your opinion, as an economist?
The government has lost the ability to see what is clearly before their eyes. Or they are simply in denial. In actuality, new rich have grown in thousands, while new poor have grown in millions. The number of people in debt has also increased alongside the ailing and the unemployed. Disparity has increased too.
According to latest government records, presently the monthly income in Bangladesh of every citizen, woman, man, child and elderly, is around Tk 16,000. The monthly income of a four-member family is around Tk 64,000. But in actuality it is seen that the monthly family income of at least 100 million people in the country is below Tk 30,000. And their income has decreased further during the pandemic. So where has the Tk 30,000 to Tk 40,000 of the average income of the majority people gone? This gone to the pockets of those whose incomes are being further increased by the budget.
The government has given over Tk 1 trillion in stimulus packages to keep the economic active during the pandemic. But how active is the economy?
The claim that the government has given Tk 1 trillion in stimulus packages is incorrect. A large chunk of this is bank loans of which the government has only taken responsibility to lessen interest. An analysis will show that the large borrowers have received this benefit. The weak, who actually need this stimulus, have received very little of these benefits. It is appalling that the budget has nothing but the government's token gifts and greetings for the millions of people who have lost their work and earnings and have sunk into despair. There are rare instances in the world of such corona stimulus.
Is this budget pro-people and anti-people? If it is not pro-public, what could be the alternative?
It is a typical budget. A budget is nothing isolated. It is a reflection of the development vision upon which the country is running. The main trend of the budget is, no matter what harm may come to the people and nature, at any cost the GDP must be increased, the growth of the wealthy people's wealth must be accelerated.
There needs to be an alternative development vision that will strengthen education, medical care and all public sectors. It will build up environment-friendly industry, agriculture. It will strengthen social safety nets with the inclusion of rationing. It will bring a halt to black money and increase investment in productive sectors. It will ensure that people's participation and approval are indispensible. The budget must be in the interests of the people with a balanced system of income and expenditure.
What is the reason of the huge gap between the proposed budget and its implementation? What is more responsible for this situation, inefficiency or corruption?
If you observe carefully, you will notice that the gap between allocation and implementation is not same in all projects or sectors. The administrative sector is rife with allocations and expenditure on luxury, procurement and foreign trips. The projects which involve the interests of the powerful, are implemented speedily. The ones which are needed in the interests of the public but are not under any pressure from behind the scenes, lie neglected.
The problem is not in inefficiency or lack of funds. The problem is priorities and policies. And this is where the network of corruption is created. There is more interest in procurement and construction. For example, healthcare is most important for the public right now. In many places of the country, hospitals do not have facilities for tests, oxygen, ICU. There is a shortage of physicians, nurses, health workers. Yet there is an unbelievable degree of neglect in this sector. Even after procurement, large amounts of equipment lay idle in the airports for months. Corruption in procurement has been exposed too.
On the other hand, allocation and implementation are given top priority in projects like Rampal and Rooppur which are harmful to health. Despite the requirement of little funds, roads and bridges lie in disrepair in hundreds of places around the country. Embankments lie damaged. But projects requiring massive funds are progressing in full swing.
Educational institutions have remained closed for around one and a half years now. Classes and exams are being held in private universities but public universities are more or less at a standstill. How do you view this policy of the government -- keeping everything open except educational institutions?
The government's role in keeping all educational institutions shut and running online classes was merely a directive. From the outset if initiative, planning and funds had been arranged to train the teachers and students, to set up an extensive network and to resolve the problems of laptops and mobile phones, then such a huge number of students would not have had to suffer.
Special allocations and arrangements for this should have been made in the 2020 budget. It wasn't done then, it hasn't been done now. As a result, very few have been able to carry out online studies. The majority have been left out. This has increased disparity. Many teachers of non-government weaker schools and colleges have lost their jobs. Many face salary cuts. The studies of many students have been halted. It will be difficult to make up for these irreparable losses to the families and to the nation as a whole.
Does the budget contain anything to improve education and research of Bangladesh's universities?
The function of universities is to look into ways for social growth, to pave the way for innovation, creativity, to encourage thought and analyses, raise questions outside the grip of negative dominance. The government is afraid of all this. The government wants ignorant, unquestioning, loyal citizens. The budget allocation and programmes indicate that the development of education, research and national competence is not on the government agenda.
If the universities are made into branches of the ruling party, if the vice chancellors are seen as the leaders of the ruling party branches, how can education, research and publications improve?
Thank you too
* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir