Go set a watchman

Middle class and low income people are suffering due to abnormal rise in oil prices. Buyers are now buying edible oil in plastic bags at a price of Tk 20 as they cannot afford to buy a whole bottle. The photo was taken from Tejkunipara in Tejgaon on 8 February.Sajid Hossain

The 13-year-old daughter of my domestic help received her government stipend through mobile financial service Nagad last Tuesday. Unfamiliar with the technology the girl went to several agent shops with her mother, who cannot read, to withdraw the money. One of the shop agents stole her money using the secret PIN number, obviously provided by the victim on request. The swindler said the PIN number was wrong and the money could not be cashed out without a correct PIN. They did not realise that their money had been filched until they went to the GPO office to recover the PIN code.

You may see red, thinking who are these pathetic low lives stealing a household help’s money. But the shop agent is not the main culprit here. The agent number can be identified and the agent who did this ghastly thing can be caught and tried . But do these poor, uneducated people have fair access to that so-called justice system? Does she know where to go for remedy or how to avail the facilities?

Another point is, the aim of stipends for female students in secondary education was to prevent them from dropping out of school. Dropping out from secondary level education mostly happens in low-income families. In most of those families the parents are not educated or hardly can write their own names. So, is this decision to send money using modern technology like mobile financial services and banking at all viable for that section of society?

We surely can understand this has been introduced due to the pandemic. Then why aren’t these less advanced or underprivileged people trained to use these technologies or provided with guidelines. The government agencies brags of hundreds of initiatives including online classes for students. The teachers of each school could be asked to provide instructions to the students on how to avail the service. It would take only 5 minutes. Mobile phone operators or the mobile financial service providers could be engaged in this process too.

Such income disparity leads to other social stratification like lack of access to food, health, education or so on. Then the poor remains poor and the vicious cycle goes on

Social justice is a dogma that verifies if everybody in a society is served with equal social, political and economic rights. If a state policy leaves out a particular community of a society from certain rights it creates a social stratification. Income inequality or lack of purchase capacity is one of the sources that lead to food insecurity and access to education for low-income people in a society, especially during a special circumstance like ongoing pandemic.

Although Bangladesh’s per capita income went up, the income disparity is higher than ever in the country right now. Bangladesh ranked 133rd among 189 countries according to the Human Development Index-2021.The index revealed that the bottom 40 per cent of our population hold only 21 per cent of wealth while the 10 rich quarter holds 27 per cent of wealth.

Such income disparity leads to other social stratification like lack of access to food, health, education or so on. Then the poor remains poor and the vicious cycle goes on. For example, a low-income person cannot have equal access to education or health. Less education or no education leads to low-income job or unemployment.

We see reports on the price hike of daily essentials every day. Due to sudden raise in fuel price in November last year, the prices of every commodity including transport fare went up. The increase was so glaring that it sparked criticism of the policy among people at all levels. People lost their jobs while many got their salaries slashed due to the pandemic. The situation just exacerbated as price of daily essentials like rice, flour, edible oil, lentils, onion, meat and vegetables increased insanely.

While people were still bearing the brunt last year’s price hike, Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission moved to increase the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) on 3 February. The agency said through a press release that the price of 12-kilogram cylinderof LPG would go up by Tk 62 to Tk 1,240 from Tk 1,178.

We people are trapped in conformism. We don’t ask questions. We retire into the background and wait for a watchman to appear and set the miscreants straight

According to a Prothom Alo report, despite adequate stock, the government failed to control the price of rice. The price of coarse rice is Tk 48-50 per kg while the fine rice is being sold at upto Tk 72 per kg.

The prices of rice, lentils and oil have increased so much that the commerce minister Tipu Munshi recently admitted that there were well-dressed people in the queue in front of the vehicle selling TCB products.

When consumers are purchasing rice or vegetable at a high price, why do the farmers who grow the crop do not get a fair price? This year the farmers who grew potatoes had to incur losses due to untimely rains in the beginning of the winter. The price also dropped drastically to Tk 8 to 10. It transpired that the syndicates had a contribution to that price fall. This chaos in market management has prevailed for years, yet the authorities could not come up with any remedy.

We witnessed several jute mills closing. We saw the government shutting down six sugar mills in December 2020 as they were running at a loss. The sugarcane farmers were put in the crunch too. Yet the price of sugar surged by around Tk 15 in phases over the past two years. The question remains, who benefits from the closure of government sugar mills?

This anarchy spreads to every corner of the society where justice is nothing but far cry. Farmers are incurring losses, low-income and middle class people are grappling with family expenses, youth are baffled, students are committing suicide, unemployment at its peak and we, the people, are still looking for the moral compass to guide us.

We people are trapped in conformism. We don’t ask questions. We retire into the background and wait for a watchman to appear and set the miscreants straight. Or we wait until the next issue appears in the following day newspapers.

In the Victorian era, Charles Dickens was fighting the tax burden imposed by the royals. One of those hideous tax laws was Window Tax. It was introduced in 1696 to raise money to cover the costs of creating new currency, to pay for wars, diplomacy and luxurious palaces. People had to literally pay for extra windows in their houses. So many tenants instead of paying extra money closed up the windows with planks or concrete. It was suffocating and unhealthy and caused pandemics.

The tax law was scrapped in 1851, after Dickens published several fiery articles in his magazine ‘Household Words’. Dickens played a watchman for England.

The state is indeed responsible to ensure fair social justice. But people must seek it. We cannot possibly have a stable and secure life until we struggle for social justice. Time is running out. Justice delayed is justice denied. How much longer can the people be denied of this fundamental and universal right?