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3 months ago

One nation, two or more societies!

Illustrative image — Collected
Illustrative image — Collected

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In his scholarly keynote dissertation presented at a programme marking the 63rd anniversary of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), renowned economist Dr Binayak Sen notes with concern the emergence of two societies in one nation. Titled "Poverty Trends and Dynamics in Bangladesh: Insights from Recent Evidence" the paper, however, duly underscores the steady reduction of poverty for a decade prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war – the latter following on the heel of the former – have upset that positive development.

The disease known for taking the highest toll on global population and economy in human history has left its devastating trail here in Bangladesh too, pushing the majority of the people down the rank – a sizeable segment of them below the poverty line. This is known to all and sundry but what is less known is how and to what extent it has affected the less fortunate so that inequality in society has widened further. Had the Ukraine war not followed just at a time the global economy and commerce were on course of making a turn-around, countries like Bangladesh would have weathered the crisis commendably.

But that was not to be. Pre-pandemic wealth creation was marked by maldistribution and yet, as Dr Sen rightly points out, income or for that matter economic condition of all was improving with the difference that the privileged had wealth accumulation by leaps and bounds whereas those down the rank were beneficiaries of just trickle-down benefits. The double blow from the pandemic and war has sent the poor and low-income people reeling. Each story of an individual family is likely to be different and to capture a general picture of the misery and wretchedness of people belonging to the declining social segment is well-nigh impossible.

Yet economists have developed a way of measuring the disparities in income and consumption patterns. Gini coefficient in a range between 0 to 1.0 is used for measuring economic inequality, where zero denotes a perfectly equal distribution of income or wealth among a population. Albeit utopian, it is the ideal index of wealth distribution. If the Gini coefficient is 1.0, it is an indication of the ultimate inequality and if it crosses the 0.50 mark, it tells of high inequality in wealth distribution. With a Gini coefficient of 0.50 – urban 0.54 and rural 0.45, Bangladesh finds itself in the high inequality index. In case of consumption, according to the presenter of the keynote paper, who is the incumbent director general of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), the Gini coefficient in rural areas was 0.334 and in urban areas 0.356.  Naturally, inequality in urban space is starker and rising with artificially induced inflation making its presence felt more there than in rural settings.      

One has to be a willing or unwilling witness to the worsening socio-economic crisis confronting people in the form of long queues of desperate men and women behind TCB (Trading Corporation of Bangladesh) trucks selling some essentials at subsidised prices. What is remarkable is that the two main programmes initiated under the TCB are different from the two and a half dozens or so social safety-net programmes the government used to run from the time prior to the pandemic. Of them, old age allowance, widowed, distressed women allowance, disabled allowance, vulnerable group development (VGD) and vulnerable group feeding (VGF) along with primary education stipend programme and stipend for female secondary students have served the vulnerable community appreciably. But the post-Covid programmes are not free of cost and this is quite significant.

Here it refers to the unfolding spectre of economic crisis for segments of people who did not depend on any aid programme – not even a rationing system. Now the government is even aware of the desperation of those classes and had to come with TCB programmes in order to give them some relief. But how far can such programmes go to serve society in terms of its collective growth.

The existing social safety net programmes and these latest emergency measures are just the bare minimum arrangements for helping the most needy to keep their body and soul together. This is no way of ensuring a decent living for those people who have to do away with some of the most essential foods required for healthy physical growth and sustenance. TCB does not sell eggs, milk, baby foods and fruits.

Tracing the root cause of the outrageous socio-economic disparities, the BIDS director general points his accusing fingers at the gap between education some fortunate few receive abroad and the rest fated to pursue at home. But he was not categorical about the different streams at home with varying standards. At the start of education, the discrimination begins and haunt them throughout their lives. Thus the intriguing and crafty find scope to rise in society, relegating merit to the back burner. This creates more than two societies – some moneyed but devoid of patriotism, culture and refinement.

So there is a rise of the ultra-rich class in this country with no love for the land. This explains why they launder money and become willing loan defaulters. Yes, one could not agree more with the economist's view that stopping money laundering is a sine qua non for the country to revive its economic prospects. Already billions, may be trillions of takas, have been siphoned off. Had those amounts of money been stopped and brought under the programme of social welfare taxation, the appalling inequality could be brought down to a tolerably reasonable level.

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