My former classmate, now the finance minister, presented in the Parliament the budget for the year (also the golden anniversary of our independence), and I congratulate him for this honour. But regrettably I am unable to felicitate him for his budget because it ignores the interests of the common people.
The reason for ignoring the common people in the budget is the government's erroneous notion that infrastructure building is "development". Building infrastructure is attractive because it can be seen, touched, big money can be spent on it, and used for doling out patronage and giving undue benefits to the chosen ones. But true development represents improvements in people's state of wellbeing, which largely depends on progress in education, health, nutrition, women's conditions, employment and so on, for which infrastructure building is also essential.
Because of the government's priority for infrastructure developments, its budgets are not generally designed to cause significant improvements in people's wellbeing, and this year's budget is no different. The minister has unhesitatingly admitted that his budget is "business friendly", rather than people friendly. In other words, the budget has again been developed to serve the interests of a few, without giving due priority to common people's health, education, employment needs and the like.
This is not surprising as almost the whole country is now run for the benefit of special interest groups, such as businessmen. Businessmen not only overly influence our economic policymaking, but they also dominate our politics so much so that our parliaments can now be viewed as the extension of the FBCCI. I am all for giving incentives to businesses for stimulating investment and employment—however, I am opposed to the politicisation of business and mingling business with politics, which causes de-politicisation and other anomalies, putting in the back burner common people's interests.
Government functionaries represent another interest group, a large segment of which has been instrumental in bringing the present regime to power. The government has also been generous to the functionaries, many of whom violated laws and committed electoral crimes, the punishment for which, according to the RPO, is 2-7 years of imprisonment along with fines.
In the last decade, the government's expenditure for salaries and benefits increased by 211 percent. Even in the current fiscal year of coronavirus pandemic, which has caused widespread economic devastations and pushed about two and a half crore Bangladeshi below the poverty-line, the raise in their salary and benefits continued. In 2021-22, increases in their salary and benefits will continue at 3 percent, accounting for 19 percent—and with the addition of pension costs 26.7 percent—of the total cost of governing, which is projected to be about Tk 3 lakh 66 thousand. Thus, even though general people are struggling from the devastations of the pandemic, the functionaries will continue to be well taken care of by their political bosses.
Despite spending such huge amounts for the functionaries, the implementation rate of our budget is quite dismal, giving rise to the concern that we may be rearing a white elephant. More seriously, the government functionaries are now increasingly getting involved in corrupt activities, notwithstanding the ever-increasing costs of employing them, siphoning off resources which could be used for the benefits of the common people. Furthermore, because of the government's continuing dependence on it, the bureaucracy, rather than the citizens themselves, has been increasingly becoming more powerful, which is inconsistent with democratic norms and good governance principles.
If we are to increase the budget implementation rate and safeguard the interests of the people, we must overhaul and strengthen our largely dysfunctional governance system. The governance system stands on three important pillars: appropriate laws and rules and their applications in the interest of the people; effective systems and procedures; and well-functioning and non-partisan institutions. There have been continued erosion in all these areas in our country, threatening people's wellbeing. A dysfunctional governance system, along with the spread of corruption and plundering, lack of rule of law and violation of human rights, harm the interests of the common people. On the other hand, the privileged generally thrive in a state of poor governance. Unfortunately, the proposed budget provides no roadmap for addressing the burgeoning governance failures in our country.
The apparent reason for making the budget business friendly is to protect livelihoods, but livelihood is meaningless unless you are alive. The common people, because of their lower level of education and awareness, are inherently at greater risk of being infected by the coronavirus. In addition, the "social determinants of health", representing the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age also put the poorer segment of the population at greater risk of catching the virus and getting sick.
The increased risks of the common people can be effectively confronted by breaking the chain of infection and stopping the que to hospitals. This chain can be broken by preventive measures, such as adherence to health regulations, including behavioural change of the people; isolation of the infected patients; putting in quarantine those who are suspected of being infected; and increasing the vaccination coverage. The universal vaccination coverage within the shortest time is one sure way to protect the common people from the threat of the virus. But the finance minister has proposed to give vaccines only to 25 lakh people per month, most of which are likely to go to the privileged people, depriving the poor. Vaccinating at this rate would take several years to cover everyone, which will also increase the health risks for the poor. It should be noted that the rich will not be affected by the unavailability of vaccines because they can go abroad to take vaccines or arrange to bring vaccines to Bangladesh for their own use. Furthermore, the poor when they get sick, have no access to overcrowded hospitals. Thus, the finance minister has acted against the interests of the common people by not allocating enough money for vaccinating everyone quickly.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, Secretary, SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.
This article was originally published on The Daily Star. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.