Ensure a social safety net for all disadvantaged people

Hiren Pandit : In the new financial year 2023-24, it has been decided to include 7.35 lakh elderly, widows, and persons with disabilities under the social safety net and the budget has been formulated accordingly. Besides, after almost a decade, the amount of old age allowance and widow allowance slightly increased in the financial year 2023-24 in the context of the recent increase in commodity prices.

Considering the rise in inflation in recent times and the upcoming national elections, each ministry participating in the meeting proposed to increase the number of allowances and beneficiaries in various categories including old age allowance, widow allowance, and disability allowance. The Ministry of Social Welfare had proposed to increase the number of beneficiaries under all programs of Old Age Allowance, Widow Allowance and Disability Allowance and Disability Allowance to 23,74,000. The new fiscal year expenditure would increase by Tk 3,445 crore.

Highlighting the data of the latest labour force survey published by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the finance minister said that the number of poor people in the country has decreased compared to before. In this situation, the decision to increase the beneficiaries in all categories is not logical. Out of the 7.35 lakh people newly brought under the social safety net in this fiscal year’s budget, the number of beneficiaries of persons with disabilities will increase by 5.35 lakh. Besides, the number of beneficiaries of old age allowance and widow allowance will increase by one lakh.

In the budget of the current financial year, Tk 1 lakh 13 thousand 576 crore has been allocated under the social safety net, but out of this, old age allowance, widow allowance, stipend for students with disabilities, and 10,64,1000 persons receiving disability allowance receive a total allowance of Tk 7,465 crore. A large part of the money allocated to the social safety net sector is spent on pensions of government employees, interest on savings bonds, various government funds, and construction of various small infrastructures including the construction of cyclone centres.

At present one lakh students with disabilities get a stipend every month. Students with disabilities at the primary level receive a scholarship of Tk 750 per month, at the secondary level Tk 800, at the higher secondary level at Tk 900 and at the higher-level students at the rate of Tk 1,300 per month. It will cost the government 95.64 crore rupees this year. It will cost the government 95.64 crore taka this year. For the new financial year, the Ministry of Social Welfare proposed Tk. 1,100 per month for primary students, Tk. 1,300 for secondary students, Tk. 1,400 for higher secondary students and Tk. 1,600 for higher-level students. This would have cost the government an additional 48.89 crore taka. The government provides an allowance of Tk. 850 per month to persons with disabilities. 2,429.18 crore has been allocated to provide this facility to 23.65 lakh persons with disabilities in the current financial year.

Most people get benefits under the social safety net under the Old Age Allowance. In the current financial year, 57.10 lakh senior citizens are receiving allowance at the rate of Tk 500 per month. This will cost the government 3,444.54 crores in the current financial year. In the financial year 2016-17, the amount of allowance for senior citizens was increased from Tk 400 to Tk 500. Even after seven years have passed, the rate of old age allowance has not been increased taking into account inflation.

In the budget for the financial year 2023-24, the allocation for social safety net has increased slightly. However, only 30.59 per cent of this will be spent on social safety net premiums for government employees and their family’s pensions and interest on savings bonds. It has been recommending the exclusion of pensions and savings bonds from social safety net allocations and increased allocations for poor and vulnerable groups. The IMF mission that came to Dhaka before the Budget also recommended the same. While the budget shows a lot of allocations including many programs that are not real social protection, the allocations for the poor people are grossly inadequate. Moreover, it is alleged that those who are not eligible for such allowance are getting it because of the error in the selection of beneficiaries. Many are eligible but not getting it.

Analyzing the allocation, it can be seen that 115 programs have been mentioned in this regard in the 2023-24 financial year as well. Out of this, 27 thousand 414 crore taka have been allocated for the pension of retired government employees and their families, which is 21.71 percent of the total social safety net program allocation. That is, 1 out of 5 of the total allocation will be spent on this sector. 11 thousand 217 crores have been allocated as social safety net premiums on the interest rate of savings bonds. A total of 38 thousand 631 crores will be spent in these two sectors, which is more than 30 percent of the total allocation. National Savings Certificates offer higher interest than bank loan rates. A portion of the interest is paid by the government as a premium from social safety net allocation.

21 thousand 700 crores have been kept for the agricultural subsidy from social safety net allocation. Various funds managed by the government and construction of minor infrastructure including construction of cyclone shelters will be spent. There is an interest subsidy of Tk. 5000 crore for the SME sector. The benefits of the social safety net program will go into the pockets of about 12 crore people in the country. Out of this, at least 2 crore people will get the allowance of various social safety net programs of the government. The government’s allocation for this sector is about Tk 1 lakh 26 thousand 272 crore, which is 16.58 per cent of the total budget and about 2.52 per cent of the GDP.

The number of elderly pensioners was 57 lakh 1 thousand. In the current financial year, 1 lakh has been increased to 58 lakh 1 thousand. Although the number of women beneficiaries including widows and husbands is 24 lakh 75 thousand, this year it has been increased to 25 lakh 75 thousand. The rate of monthly allowance has also been increased from Tk 500 to Tk 550.

The number of beneficiaries with disabilities was 23 lakh 65 thousand. This year it has been increased to 29 lakhs. The ministry said that all those who are in the disabilities database will be covered under this program. Besides, the rate of monthly education stipend for students with disabilities has been increased from Tk. 750 to Tk. 900 at the primary level. The higher secondary level has been increased from 900 to 950 taka. About 2 lakh students will be covered under this facility. Apart from this, about 18 lakh students are covered under the scholarship. So far graduate level students were not covered under this facility but they will also be brought under this program in the current financial year.

The number of beneficiaries of the third-gender community has increased from 4 thousand 815 to 6 thousand 880.

The number of special allowance beneficiaries has been increased from 2,600 to 5,620. Among the disadvantaged communities, the number of beneficiaries has increased from 70 thousand to 82 thousand. The number of special allowance beneficiaries has been increased from 45 thousand to 55 thousand. Apart from this, the number of stipend students among disadvantaged communities has increased to 27 thousand. The number of beneficiaries of the mother and child support program has increased from 1.2 lakhs to 1.3 lakhs. Apart from this, the rate of beneficiary allowance in the employment program for the very poor has been increased to Tk. 400 instead of Tk. 200 per day. Apart from this, more than 13 lakh people will be given an allowance for the protection of pregnant mothers and children.

Bangabandhu Pratibandhi Surakkha Bima has been launched under the Neuro-Developmental Pratibandhi Shurakkha Trust to reduce the health and life risks of people with Autism and Neuro-Developmental Disabilities as part of social activities. A total of 130 disability service and aid centres are being operated in 64 districts and 39 upazilas of the country to provide therapeutic services to persons with disabilities. Newly 211 service and help centres are waiting for opening for persons with disabilities.

The writer is a columnist and researcher. He can be contacted at hiren.bnnrc@gmail.com

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