The political importance of the budget has dwindled and it has become almost entirely business oriented. Almost all the analyses have termed this as a business-friendly budget. As it is, business persons have been dominant in the parliament for quite some time now. And this is true about the ministers too. So rather than calling this a business-friendly budget, it would not be an exaggeration to call it a businessman's budget. Of course, it must be pointed out that small entrepreneurs are not included in this definition of businessmen. And after the business community, it is government bureaucrats and employees that are most benefitted by this budget.

While those working in the private sector are losing their jobs and facing salary cuts, and having to leave the cities for the villages, no measures have been undertaken to provide them with any relief or reassurance. That is why most of the economists have unhesitatingly said the government has forgotten all about those who have been pitched into poverty anew by the coronavirus pandemic. According to various accounts, they total over 25 million to 35 million (2.5 crore to 3.5 crore). The question is, has anyone bargained with the government on behalf of the 35 million people? In the absence of politics and accountability, will the bureaucrats busy calculating growth and the politicians busy with their businesses, remember the plight of this neglected 20 per cent of the population? So-called beneficiaries have nothing to do with many of the development projects taken up. They are not involved at all. This is just as true of the forest-destroying Rampal project as it is of the projects to establish a five-star hotels in Bandarban or so-called safari parks in reserved forests of the country. Then there are questions of the over hundred special economic zones being planned in the country which will reportedly devour crop land and the livelihood of farmers.

In an informal conversation, a well-known and top economist expressed his surprise that the priority issues of the budget are not discussed in the parliamentary standing committees. My counter question to him was, can anything different be expected from the parliamentary committees when one party is all-in-all in parliament and businesspersons dominate there? He stopped there.

Those discussing the budget have observed that implementation of the budget is not satisfactory. Highlighting data of the past decade, they have also pointed to the alarmingly slow pace of implementation of the development projects. That is why projects are being extended, expenditure is spiralling by the year and the burden of corruption and pilferage grows heavier. As for those who have been silent about the process of destroying divergent political positions and alternative forces in the name of stability and continuity of government, do they now realise that the parliamentary system without a functional opposition is not a democracy where the government's accountability is required? The government-nominated opposition that we have seen in parliament for the past eight years, is hardly likely to be any different.

It is the task of economists to analyse the budget and they have aptly highlighted what should have been given priority in the pandemic-time budget. The question is, unless democracy can be restored to its own glory, it will never be possible to replace the interests of vested groups with the interests of the greater population. So the sooner attention is paid to the actual malady, the better.

Who is responsible for the failure to implement the budget or for the implementation of the development budget falling below half? It is said inefficiency of the administration, corruption and anti-reform stances are responsible for this. So then, why is 26 per cent of the people's money spent on this bureaucracy? Why is the size of the government so massive? Why are a dozen officers and employees required to prepare a single document?

This government has been in power for around 12 years at a stretch. So comparisons cannot be drawn with others. Even then, a perusal of old newspapers reveals that in the BNP budget of 2005-06, expenditure for the public administration was 4.6 per cent and for pension, 4.2 per cent. After Awami League came to power in 2009, public administration allocation stood at 13.6 per cent and for pension, 3.2 per cent. Administrative expenditure (including pension) at the very outset was almost double that of the preceding political government. And there was a huge leap in expenditure on the bureaucracy in 2015, around 23 per cent. The reason behind this, as undisputedly acknowledged, is the dominance of the bureaucracy after the government took over following the uncontested one-sided election.

As a political party, Awami League's pledge was to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. But on the contrary, the gap has widened. This time too, the ultra-poor and the 'new poor' have been overlooked. But now no one is held accountable for this.

And the government allies in parliament have been quite open about the role of the civil servants in forming the government for the third term. The dominance of these civil servants in all spheres, from stuffing the ballot boxes on the eve of the election to aiding and abetting the ruling alliance candidates in their devious activities, is now a regular matter. No one can say anything to them now about humiliating an elderly man by making him hold his ears and squat, fining a distressed family for asking for food relief, or creating an uproar over a goat.

Particularly noticeable in this Golden Jubilee budget was the greetings from a dozen or so heads of government, an opposition leader and the UN secretary general as well as excerpts from the international media in praise of Bangladesh. Many renowned politicians and intellectuals of the world expressed their apprehensions about Bangladesh's very existence after its birth. Now, 50 years hence, it is natural and expected for this country to win praise. Why did the finance minister need to project these 'certificates' of praise given on the occasion of the country's Golden Jubilee and the birth centennial of Bangabandhu, the leader of the independence struggle? But whenever these countries raised questions and expressed concern about human rights and the credibility of the two consecutive elections, the government lashed out in rage. On one hand we cherish the words of the UN secretary general when he says that the people of Bangladesh have played a significant role over the past five years in social advancement. On the other hand, we question his right to make any comments when he expresses his views about the elections.

Perhaps the finance minister did not realise the pitfalls of using such 'certificates'. If he did, he would not have quoted the New York Times' article on 'What can Biden's Plan do for Poverty? Look to Bangladesh.' The article gives credit to all governments of Bangladesh after the eighties for the country's progress. Grameen Bank, BRAC and such non-government organisations have been given credit for matters such as girls' education and women's empowerment.

There is a general concept about the budget that redistribution of wealth is an effective tool in reducing social disparity. As a political party, Awami League's pledge was to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. But on the contrary, the gap has widened. This time too, the ultra-poor and the 'new poor' have been overlooked. But now no one is held accountable for this.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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