The austerity measures we need

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The government has gone for certain measures to ensure austerity in the way we conduct life in these fraught times. Steps to conserve electricity through a programme of load-shedding are of course needed and ought to be welcomed by citizens who relate to political happenings both in Bangladesh and around the world.

One could suggest, though, that a more disciplined approach be brought into ensuring that power supply is streamlined in a manner that does not cause panic among citizens in general and business in particular. Besides, the supply of gas is one area demanding judicious austerity planning.

Austerity is everywhere a well-defined concept and therefore it is for our policymakers to put in every ounce of wisdom into convincing us that the measures they have put or plan to put into implementation mode will stabilize the political as also economic system as it stands today.

There are the worries that assail us, those that relate to foreign exchange reserves and spending. And spending surely does not need to be undertaken at this point of time. The state is in serious need of augmenting its foreign exchange component at a time when so many other nations are on the brink.

Belt-tightening is called for, which is one way of informing ourselves that both short-term and long-term means toward promoting a necessary degree of austerity should be a priority today. The government has already made it known that overseas trips by officials should be reduced to a minimum.

Let us expand on that and suggest that for the foreseeable future all visits abroad by government officials, members of parliament and ministers be put on absolute hold. Any meeting or interaction with foreign governments can be easily and properly handled by the nation's diplomats based in capitals around the world.

This talk of our missions handling issues, bilateral as also multilateral, abroad raises the all-important question of what ought to be done long-term about cutting back on the way national resources are frittered away abroad. There is a clear need to take the fat out of our diplomatic missions, seeing that too many officers and employees are employed at our embassies and high commissions abroad.

In Washington, London, Delhi and other capitals, austerity requires that a leaner presence be the goal of the state. The waste of national resources --- salaries, entertainment allowances, vehicles, residential accommodation --- militates against actual diplomatic achievement. We cannot afford such waste. Additionally, we wonder if it is at all necessary to have mission branches in countries where our embassies and high commissions already operate.

Over the long term --- and the process ought to begin now that we have these collective worries about the future of the economy --- thoughts must be expended on a reduction in the size of government. Too many ministries are there, most of which can simply be trimmed and merged with the more important ministries along with a reduction in the number of bureaucrats now managing, or mismanaging, them.

Small government is always good government. Where government expands into ever-widening territory, it is a bloated and unproductive bureaucracy which is the result. A slicing away at ministries we could do without could in turn leave administration working better.

One could also inquire into the means of reducing government salaries by a certain percentage, at the higher levels, in these critical moments. Additionally, bureaucrats should be ordered to go for a full use of public transport and so abjure the vehicular facilities that have so long been an accompaniment to their official positions.

When we inform citizens across the board that their use of electricity must now conform to austerity steps, we can very well decree that government transport pools stay off the roads for a good number of days in the week and thereby save on fuel.

A key component of austerity measures is a huge requirement for curbs on imports of a non-essential nature. Luxury items can be put on hold in favour of essential goods the country is in dire need of or will be in need of in the immediate future.

And along with such steps, brainstorming should go into the means of an expansion of the national export base. Crises are often opportunities for nations to strike out on newer, and better, routes to economic consolidation.

And while we are on the subject, we might as well proffer the thought that austerity requires a suspension or even abandonment of all mega projects in the country. Localised development should come in --- health centres, educational institutions, agriculture and industry --- as moves which directly affect citizens at the grassroots level all across the country.

Progress must be tangible, with elected local government chairmen and members given responsibility of shaping strategy for their regions in this austerity-driven programme.

Drastic measures will be a requirement in following through on such austerity moves, particularly where unethical trading is the issue. Citizens have increasingly felt the pressure of rising prices of essential goods, which is a worry calling for attention.

If austerity is the objective in so many other areas, there can be little reason not to crack down on dishonest traders and businessmen who have been making a mess of citizens' lives all over the country for years.

Sales of essential food items on TCB trucks have been a welcome measure, one that needs to be expanded in terms of quality, quantity and frequency. It is not only low-income groups which have been battered by this spiral in prices but also middle-income groups, which is why such sales need to go on.

At the same time, steps toward an introduction of ration cards for the economically deprived in the urban and rural regions of the country ought to be mulled in all the necessary seriousness. In the critical days of the early 1970s, ration cards went into ensuring food at low cost for millions in Bangladesh. They could be instrumental in these times as well. They will save lives.

Obviously, austerity does not cause happiness in any society. But at particular historical moments austerity is the only viable means of reassuring people that the state will do as much as it can to reduce their levels of suffering.

We do not live in war conditions in these times, but given the state of the world --- the war over Ukraine, western sanctions against Russia, the resultant crisis in food grain supply, the looming crisis over energy --- we along with nations in our neighbourhood and beyond are today trapped in warlike conditions.

Beyond austerity there will be life again in its splendour. Without austerity, however, life for all of us may well be on a nosedive. Our policymakers who also have it in their power to implement the comprehensive decisions they reach are today expected to put shoulder to wheel to keep the machinery of state going through a judicious enumeration and application of austerity. 

Hard times call for tough, though not necessarily popular, decisions. At this point in our collective life, a frugal existence is the national requirement. Beyond this point, a focused regeneration of the national economy is the inevitable requirement. There is no escaping these truths.

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