Of pandemic and per-capita income

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The numbers that refer to positive development could often be misleading. The country's per capita income is one such number.  The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), in its final estimate, has hiked the country GDP growth rate to 6.94 per cent for the year 2020-21 from the provisional estimate of 5.43.

In line with the final GDP estimate, the per capita income also turned out to be higher than the provisional one.

The growth picture as portrayed by the BBS is for a pandemic-hit fiscal year. The performance highlights better economic management and resilience of the people to overcome odds.

The queues of people seen at the tail of the TCB trucks selling a few essentials in Dhaka and some other cities have been getting longer in recent months, belying all the BBS estimates.

The BBS estimates may be slightly higher than that of the multilateral institutions. But the country's economic growth rate has been impressive even during the pandemic time.

There is the trickle-down theory in terms of the distribution of benefits coming from the facilities extended to businesses and corporations. But, in reality, the theory does not work, as it fails to promote jobs or raise the earnings of the poor.

The government spending on development projects did not see any notable cut during the pandemic time and the private sector operators received stimulus packages worth billions of taka. In contrast, there had been an erosion in the income of the poor; thousands lost jobs and many others saw a cut in their wages. To make things worse for them, the prices of most essentials started rising unabatedly.

The truth is that the income of the rich people has been more during the pandemic. For instance, the net worth of business tycoon of India Mr Gautam Adani, who unseated his fellow countryman Mr Mukesh Ambani to be the wealthiest person in Asia, reached $88.5 billion in the second week of this month. Adani has seen his wealth 'skyrocket' during the pandemic. He was worth less than $40 billion in February last year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.

The per capita income estimate, thus, is more of a misnomer. The bloated figures sound sweet to the ear of the economic policymakers only. It may have some implications for people in the developed world. But for a country like Bangladesh, the higher per capita income represents greater income inequality, as the poor here are becoming poorer and rich richer.

The pandemic that is almost two-year-long has hit the poor and low-income people hard. There is no plausible reason to think that the income of the poor has gone up during the pandemic, as shown in the official per capita estimates. The incomes of the Bangladeshi versions of Adanis and Ambanis have surely soared during the pandemic since most fiscal and monetary benefits offered by the government have gone to them.

The hapless situation that the country's poor are facing can be imagined well by the statistics compiled by the public health nutrition institution. The number of highly malnourished children who had visited the hospitals to get treatment in 2021 increased by 72 per cent compared to that of the previous year. The problem of malnutrition among children of poor families is an old one in Bangladesh. Many have lost their sources of income or seen a cut in their earnings during the Covid time. The poor in this country are always deprived of balanced food. Many find it hard to manage two square meals a day. The pandemic has made things even harder.

Now it is high time the government devised some appropriate measures to help the poor and the low-income people, who are in extreme difficulty because of the soaring prices of most essentials.

The government must not be misguided by the BBS data on inflation. The national statistical organisation claimed that inflation in January last declined marginally. It is hard to believe such a claim, given the prevailing food price situation. There should also be no reason to believe that non-food items have become cheaper of late.

There is no denying that economic management under the prevailing circumstances has become quite difficult. Most items, including food, fuel, fertiliser, have become pricier in the international market. The government has a limited capacity as far as subsidising essential items and services.

Yet the government is left with certain fiscal space to ease the price situation. Since the rate of implementation of development projects is slow this year, some amount of resources from the ADP could be used for subsidising items like food, power and fertiliser. Such a move is the need of the hour, as the prices of many food items have reached the all-time high levels.

The latest hike in fuel oil prices was a mistake on the part of the government. For it had added fuel to the price-hike trend. The move to raise gas, power and water tariffs may complicate the situation further. So, it would be better if the government put the proposals to this effect on hold for the time being.

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