Acknowledging the importance of poverty alleviation for our development, Bangladesh Awami League has rightly plakhed the issue in its election manifesto. The achievements of the party during its last governments as well as its future objectives and plan to reduce poverty and income inequality have also been explained in that manifesto. In fact, their aim is to work for building a ‘Poverty free, hunger free Bangladesh’, which was the dream of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But, our tragedy is that he could not realise his dream. However, the dream of Bangabandhu started to feel the light of aspiration when his daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996. During her previous governments, country’s poverty has reduced to an extraordinary level, which is rarely seen to happen in the world. Presently, around 22 per cent of the people of Bangladesh are living below poverty line.
Some of the achievements of Awami League government in the past few years have been described in the manifesto. Those achievements were attained mainly from a number of social security programmes such as stipends for girls, stipends for physically challenged students, old age allowance, allowance for widows and destitutes deserted by husbands, Ektee Bari Ektee Khamar and Ashrayan projects, food for work, etc. In fact, all these programmes are carried out under ‘Social Safety Net’. As mentioned, 76.32 lakh individuals and families have already been brought under various social safety programmes. 36.39 lakh families are getting benefits under ‘Ektee Bari Ekti Khamar’ project. Ashrayan project has rehabilitated 1.82 thousand landless and shelter-less families.Before going for further discussion on this issue, it would be wise to remind, once again, the pledges mentioned in that election manifesto. One of the pledges is to double the amount of financial assistances in the next 5 years. According to the manifesto, there are about 5 crore recipients of various types of financial assistances. That means, 30 per cent of the population are getting this benefit. Though, it is not understood whether financial assistances are also extended to others who are not below poverty line. If so, then it would not have any impact on poverty alleviation initiatives. There might be many types of allowances or assistances given to the people irrespective of their economic status. However, we should be fair and just while looking into the poverty issue.
Another pledge says that poverty will be brought down to 12.3 per cent. This is obviously a very appreciating commitment, though the time frame has not been mentioned there. But, it might be a difficult task to make in the present tenure of the Awami League government. However, if the government is serious and follows a well prepared and target-oriented programme of action, then poverty level could be brought down to this level. Awami League might have prepared necessary strategies before it was included in the manifesto. Then, it is the best time to start the implementation of the plan.
Awami league, in its manifesto, has said that the goal of poverty alleviation will be attained by ensuring at least one earning member from each family. Honestly speaking, this will be one of the best ways to eradicate poverty from Bangladesh, only if we can do that. And it will not be very difficult to do. We have to, at first, prepare a complete list of the families living below poverty line. The list must contain the details of the members of each family. The entire planning will be based on the capability level of the member of a family selected for economic engagement. There would be a number of levels for such engagements, such as- self-employment, employment in public and private sectors, and employment abroad. The process may start with the families living under extreme poverty line, then the second category of the poor families.
It is possible to arrange self-employment for most of the people. People, who do not have required qualification or skill for employment in public or private organisations, would be brought for self-employment after appropriate training. In this case, acquisition of capital can be a major problem. But, necessary arrangements could be made by the government. The second way is to find jobs in public and private establishments. But, a friendly environment for investments, both foreign and local, should be developed for commendable expansion of our job market. The third way is the employment abroad. If we give priority to the trained people of the poor families, country’s poverty will be reduced significantly.
According to data shown in the election manifesto, 22 per cent people live below poverty line including 8.5 per cent in extreme poverty bracket. It means, the first category is 8.5 per cent and the second category consists of 13.5 per cent. Our estimation is that around 75 lakh families are living in poverty including 30 lakh families below extreme poverty line. However, we can get the actual figures once a complete list is prepared by the authorities concerned. It is expected that the government will begin its works without losing any time to fulfil this pledge in the present tenure. I can ensure, this is possible and within 5 years. But, the government must be honest and sincere to do that. We should not forget that this is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.
If we consider the statistics mentioned in the manifesto, then 76.32 lakh individuals and families are already in the social safety network. The project ‘Ektee Bari Ektee Khamar’ also covers about 36.39 lakh families. If the families under this project are included in 76.32 lakh and all of them are living below poverty line, then we have to find out (a) how many individuals/families have, by this time, come out of poverty and (b) how many poor families have yet not been included in this network. Mathematically, we have around 75 lakh families living below poverty line. In that case, it will not be a difficult job to eliminate poverty from Bangladesh well ahead of the schedule as prescribed by the UN.In Bangladesh, inequalities in income exist everywhere, whether it is a public or private organisation. In fact, the gap is so big that it will not be easy to reduce within a short span of time. The government will have to face problems in doing so. However, it seems that income inequalities between the rich and poor could be reduced in two broad ways - one is through increasing income of the poor and the second way by imposing more tax on income of the rich. By minimising the income gap, poverty rate could be reduced to some extent. Therefore, we need to work on the strategies and programmes that will reduce income inequalities. We understand that any reduction in income inequalities cannot be done in a day and it is a very complex issue, particularly in a society like Bangladesh. Considering all corners, we must start the process.
Allowance for old age and physically challenged people might be continued. For the time being, stipends for girl students are necessary to increase female literacy rate. But other financial allowances might continue making those people dependent on government, instead of growing self-confidence for their own livelihood. Creation of ample employment opportunities or earning sources will help a lot to face the problem of poverty. We may like to work on that.
We know poverty is one of the major obstacles to our country’s development. To eradicate poverty, a country should have a sustained economic growth and a proper distribution of income to reduce income inequalities. Luckily we have a sustained economic growth for the last few years, but we could not have established yet a system that would bring income gap closer among the rich and poor. We need to look into that sector.
We understand that poverty reduction is a complex and difficult task and also a challenging one. It is expected that Bangladesh Awami League led-government will be sincere in fulfilling its election pledges including poverty alleviation. We hope that the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be able to translate that challenge into reality and the people of Bangladesh will be free from poverty and hunger during its current tenure.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary