We are deeply concerned by the findings of a survey conducted by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and the Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), which suggests that the economic shock induced by the pandemic has pushed a whopping 14.75 percent of the country's population into poverty in one year. Over the past year, we have heard the term "new poor" being used to describe the households whose incomes were severely hit by the pandemic. The survey confirms that a large portion of the population who went below the poverty line during the pandemic have, one year down the line, not received the support they required to recover from it—out of 3.7 crore "new poor" identified in April last year, 2.45 crore are still struggling with rising living expenses, dwindling savings and mounting debt.
The urban poor seem to have been hit the hardest, with urban households being forced to cut food expenditure by 17 percent during the pandemic, and with informal loans of urban households increasing by 86 percent. What is even more concerning is that these same people are now facing the same hardships in the current lockdown as a result of the second wave of the pandemic, without having fully recovered from the first. In this situation, the decision to allocate Tk 10.5 crore from the Prime Minister's Relief and Welfare Fund to provide assistance to the poor and insolvent populations—who have been affected due to the ongoing lockdown—is a welcome one. In total, the government is expected to spend a total of Tk 930 crore, where Tk 880 crore will be given as cash assistance to 36 lakh low-income families, and the rest will be for one lakh disaster-affected farmers.
As welcome as the cash assistance is, effective targeting and disbursement are crucial here. Last year, the government faced a great deal of criticism for the anomalies found in the list of beneficiaries who were meant to receive cash assistance—this must be avoided this time. The authorities should also listen to the experts in order to come up with more long-term and coordinated policies to help the disadvantaged population to climb out from under the poverty line. Alongside existing social safety nets, specific new and significant programmes for the poor have been recommended, as well as an urgent national Cottage Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (CMSME) recovery action plan to help small enterprises make an economic recovery and provide employment to those who need it the most. Going forward, our policies must aim to protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable while ensuring that health protocols are being maintained.