Economists fear the disparity in relief distribution during the Covid-19 shutdown may exacerbate poverty in the poorest districts
The poorest districts have received an inadequate amount of relief during the novel coronavirus emergency. Economists fear this will worsen poverty and widen inequality.
A major disparity has become apparent during a review of the government's district-based relief allocations to face the fallout of Covid-19.
Kurigram is the poorest district in the country, where the government has allocated 1.38 kg rice per head for the poor till May 4. Exactly Tk5.70, per head, has been given as cash assistance and Tk1.56 for baby food.
Narayanganj, the least poverty-stricken district, has been given 37.94 kg rice per head, Tk136.62 cash and Tk30.04, per head, for baby food.
Kishoreganj and Gaibandha are among the 10 poorest districts. A review of relief allocation to Munshiganj and Madaripur – which have the lowest rates of poverty – also revealed this scenario.
Economists said poverty in the country had fallen slightly. However, since the coronavirus has halted economic activities, the income of people all over the country has dropped. As a result, the poverty rate has gone up drastically during the Covid-19 outbreak. If there is a disparity in distribution of government relief, there is apprehension that poverty in the poorest districts will greatly increase in the future.
According to the latest household and expenditure survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the most poverty-prone districts in the country are: Kurigram, Kishoreganj and Gaibandha with poverty rates of 70.8 percent, 53.5 percent and 46.7 percent, respectively.
The survey was conducted in 2016 but the final report was submitted in May 2018. The BBS "Household, Income and Expenditure Survey" shows that 2.6 percent of people in Narayanganj are poor, while in Munshiganj the rate is 3.1 percent and in Madaripur it is 3.7 percent. The least amount of poor people live in these three districts.
As per the poverty rate in the survey, and the present BBS population projection, Kurigram has 17,25,509 poor people. In Kishoreganj and Gaibandha, the number is 19,30,421 and 13,74,191, respectively.
Till May 4, the government has allocated 2,384 tonnes of rice for Kurigram. Of the amount, 276 tonnes of rice have been allocated under the rice and wheat sale programme of Open Market Sale (OMS) by the government. At the same time, Tk98.40 lakh has been given as cash assistance and Tk27 lakh for baby food.
For 89,751 poor people in Narayanganj, 3,406 tonnes of rice have been allocated. Of the amount, 492 tonnes is OMS rice. Tk1,22,62,000 has been given as cash assistance and Tk27 lakh for baby food.
The government has allocated 1.42 kg rice per head for Kishoreganj, where 53.5 percent people are poor. Munshiganj, where the poverty rate is 3.1 percent, has received 34.21 kg rice per head.
Dr Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office, said the poor areas are receiving less as relief is not being distributed following the poverty data. He said this would not have happened if the poverty data available with the BBS had been used.
"The allocations are being made through a bureaucratic system and on the basis of bargaining by the political leaders. The more powerful the bureaucrats and the lawmakers of an area are, the more relief the area will get," he continued.
"The aim of the relief activities centering on Covid-19 is to tackle poverty. If the rich areas get more and poor areas get less, the poverty and inequality will widen further," he added.
Md Shah Kamal, senior secretary to the ministry of disaster and relief, said it first planned to distribute relief among 10 percent of the poor people. Now 30 percent of the country's total population are receiving relief. Some 6.25 crore people in 1.25 crore families – five persons in each family, on average – are getting it.
He said Dhaka, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chattogram have been most affected by the novel coronavirus and that is why these areas have been prioritised. In these areas, many workers have become unemployed and many people have no income.
Shah Kamal said in Kurigram of North Bengal, the works of fishing or harvesting paddy have not stopped. When a cyclone hits the country, the coastal areas are prioritised. During flooding, North Bengal is prioritised. In normal times, eight districts – Kurigram, Gaibandha, Nilphamari, Jamalpur, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Joypurhat and Thakurgaon – are prioritised.
People concerned say the government has mainly been prioritising the urban economy. Not only have people in the ready-made garments sector but a huge number of people in all sectors, across the country, have become jobless. The rural economy has also been seriously affected due to the novel coronavirus.
The agriculture sector and agriculture entrepreneurs are in crisis. The farmers are not getting the price of their produce as the supply system has broken down. In villages, small and medium food entrepreneurs are losing their capital, they added.
Posts and Telecommunications Secretary Md Nur-Ur Rahman, who is in-charge of monitoring relief activities in Gaibandha, said, "Many people in the district have been affected. The economic activities have remained suspended. Considering this, the district administration has been making a list of those who have become jobless. Emergency relief is being distributed among them. Additionally, other social safety net programmes are ongoing."
Rezaul Karim, deputy commissioner of Kurigram, said, "Relief allocations are low, so we have been identifying the unemployed people in phases. After distributing relief in the first phase, more unemployed people will be identified in the second phase and they will be provided with relief materials."
"The government has now been considering introducing rationing. Then more people could be given assistance," he added.