The Financial Express

"Return to sender, address unknown"

| Updated: April 04, 2021 20:56:44

"Return to sender, address unknown"

To those of my generation with a penchant for eclectic taste in music, the Elvis Presley song of the eponymous title should be familiar. The difference is the object in question being not a dead letter but the financial assistance given to a pandemic affected poor family that has been deposited back to public exchequer for lack of awareness of the recipient. While the song resonates with pathos of loneliness, the feeling evoked by the deprivation of the poor is nothing short of being tragic, particularly in this time of distress and despair.

According to a daily newspaper report (Jai Jai Din, March 14)  a total of Tk. 1200 million is being returned to the government coffer as the beneficiaries for whom this amount was dispatched are not available online for payment. The number of poor people involved is 4 lakh, all of whom are reportedly hard hit by the pandemic for loss of their daily income because of lockdown. Apparently, they did not know that financial succor was made available by the benign government, even if belatedly and in modest amount.

Soon after 'holiday' (euphemism for lockdown) was announced on Match 24, 2020, the government promptly announced a stimulus package for the poor families who depend on daily income for their livelihood. An allowance of Tk. 2500 per family was to be given to 5.0 million families for two months. The number of beneficiaries was not sufficient, not to speak of being correct, the estimate having been made hastily almost arbitrarily. Nor was the amount adequate to cover the living expenses of a family for one month. Nevertheless, it was a timely and compassionate gesture on the part of government to come forward for the relief of the poor families caught unawares by the health emergency. But as they say, the devil is in the details, the names and address of the beneficiaries were not readily available to the authorities. So the first step for implementation of this stimulus package for the poor was to prepare their list at the grass-roots  level. It may sound somewhat strange that after more than five decades of poverty alleviation programmes of various stripes undertaken by the government and the NGO's the number and whereabouts of the poor cannot be  known at short notice. This is because the poverty-focused programmes implemented so far are confined to the specific areas with given clusters of beneficiaries identified through random or purposive household surveys. As a result, the picture of poverty in terms of names of the poor and their location is missing even after these long years of 'crusade' against poverty. The poverty map of the country looks more or less like  a jigsaw puzzle, with gaps to be filled in by the 'players' if and when the necessity arises.

Be that as it may, the task of preparing lists of the beneficiaries for the pandemic stimulus package devolved on a district committee comprising government officials, chairmen of local government bodies, teachers of schools and sundry local leaders. Among the beneficiaries were included rickshaw pullers, day labourers, construction workers, agriculture labour, employees of small shops, workers engaged in poultry firms, transport workers, hawkers and all other low income earners. Judged by the category and their number, it was a stupendous task, to say the least, to complete the preparation of the list and it is no wonder that more than two months went by before the district committee completed its task. Even then, there were allegations about omissions and commissions either through oversight or willful discretion. All told, the exercise was time consuming and liable to be unsatisfactory because of mistakes, mostly unavoidable. Given the nature of the tasks and the time required for the same, it was no surprise that the first release of fund from the stimulus package for the poor was made in July, 2020. Only one third of the total beneficiaries of 5.0 million families received the financial benefit according to a report of Bangladesh Bank. (quoted by Jai jai Din).

The delay in disbursement of fund for financial assistance was not only because of the lengthy procedure for preparation of the list of beneficiaries. Payment had to be made to the mobile banking accounts  of the beneficiaries like bKash, Rocket etc. But many of the beneficiaries did not have their accounts and were ignorant of this requirement.

According to a source in the Ministry of Finance, till  July 20, 2021, a total of Tk. 8111 million were sent through 3.2 million mobile banking accounts. But out of these 402,168 mobile banking accounts were inactive. The amount deposited against these dormant accounts totaled more than Tk. 1200 million. According to the service providers of mobile banking system, the account holders did not set up pin after the accounts were opened by them. As a result the amounts sent did not reach the account holders. It is obvious that the account holders were not informed in advance about accounts being opened in their names. Had they been told in advance they would not have sat idle when money meant for them waited in their mobile bank accounts. There was a clear case of lack of publicity and creation of awareness about the procedure to receive the stimulus allowance.

Lack of preparation and absence of prompt action can be attributed to the unfortunate, even unconscionable incident of the stimulus money amounting to Tk. 1200 million having  to be returned. There is no justification for not having a comprehensive list of the poor and the disadvantaged, particularly after the government had begun expanding the social safety net programme over the past several years. In fact, it should have been made mandatory for every citizen to have a national ID card, giving details of their family, occupations, monthly/annual income and number of dependants. Such card holders should be made to pay social security amount, at least @ Tk. 100 every year, be he/she a beggar or an old man. They should be required to open a mobile banking account as a corollary to the social security card. With such information the government can immediately decide who are to be helped when and by what amount. This should be the beginning of a modern social security system in the country.

Lack of seriousness to prepare lists of the unemployed after the lockdown was reported in detail by an English Daily. The report said: Perhaps Bangladesh has the highest number of people out of jobs, thanks to the prolonged lockdown that has taken away income opportunities for tens of thousands of people, particularly in the informal sector. We would never know given the apathy in the Ministry of the labour. This does not end here. There is no database of workers in government labour offices although the Labour Policy 2012 says that government will take steps to maintain detailed information on unemployed workers based on each firm and sector (Daily Star, May, 2020).

According to the English Daily the number of people without work claimed by several worker's rights organisations vary from 15 million upwards to 50 million, while some economists says, the number could be between 130 million  and 150 million. This is five times the official number of unemployed population-- 2.7 million as per the Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2017. These are, however, all guesswork. There is no way of adequately protecting the workers in  the informal sector who count for 85 per cent of the country's total employed population of 60.8 million. In India this database has been prepared and the government has been arranging to provide support to workers in the informal sector, particularly in construction and transport sectors. In Bangladesh there is already a database for farms and fisheries prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. But no such database  has been prepared for the informal sector as the existing labour law is formal and organised sector-centric. The problems of workers in the unorganised sector don't get reflected in the labour law despite several revisions made in the same since 2006. Now that the informal economy has been devastated by the pandemic and the lockdown that followed, something has to be done without further delay for the protection of this important sector. The neglect to this sector has been brought to light by the pandemic, if it was needed to be demonstrated. Now with the grim reality staring in the face, ameliorative measures for the sector brook no delay.

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