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Children quiz finance minister over budget

© UNICEF/2011/Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury
The Honourable Finance Minster Abul Maal Abdul Muhith poses with children from the UNICEF-supported “Our Voice” programme, which aired on Bangladesh Television on April 29 2011.

By Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury

Dhaka, 26 June 2011: Pre-budget discussions are now a common practice in most democracies in order to properly articulate the national budget and ensure that people’s expectations are rightly reflected in the budget document. However, those discussions are almost invariably conducted by adults. Not anymore.

For the first time in Bangladesh, the country’s finance minister came under a volley of questions from children, who demanded that the budget be child-focused and responsive to the needs of the children.

Finance Minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhit listened to the hopes and aspirations of the children and tried to satiate their curiosity about the budgetary process and its implications on children in the Amader Kotha or Our Voice programme, broadcast on April 29 on Bangladesh Television (BTV).

Our Voice is a UNICEF–supported monthly prime-time programme, where children from a cross-section of society, mostly representing disadvantaged groups, quiz the country’s leading policymakers on various issues affecting their lives.

The questions of the children ranged from how the government spends the revenue earned from income tax, to why the budget is usually followed by price hike of essentials, to the possibility of increasing allocation in the education and health sectors, to budgetary measures for bridging qualitative gaps in education between rural and urban areas to allocations for building resilience against adverse impacts of climate change.

Replying to a question from Rezaul Alam Raju, a student and apprentice electrician on how the government spends the money that it earns from the people as income tax, the minister said, “The government needs money to conduct its development work and other activities. We get a sizeable amount of that money from many of those who pay income tax and we also get money as Value Added Tax (VAT) from the business sector upon sale of products and services. These are mainly the revenue income through which the government carries out development work, public administration, law and order and so on.”

Student Shajon from Jatrabari bluntly said that every year, when the budget comes, poor people become panicky, anticipating a hike in the prices of essential items. Is this budget going to be the same, he asked. To this allegation, the minister replied, “Sorry, I cannot accept your argument. In 2009, when we proposed the budget, no essential commodities went through a price hike, and the 2010 budget was the same. In two of my budgets, there was nothing for common people to be afraid of. This year’s budget is also going to be similar.”

Which sector gets the highest and which sector the lowest in terms of budgetary allocation, asked Shreya Mimi from Nilphamari. “It is difficult for me to say which sector gets the lowest allocation. I have to negotiate the files to find this out. But as far as the sectors getting higher allocation are concerned, we are trying to give education the highest allocation, although it is still not the case, but we are getting closer to the target. We have the highest allocation in defence sector now,” the minister replied.

© UNICEF/2011/Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury
The Honourable Finance Minster Abul Maal Abdul Muhith poses with children from the UNICEF-supported “Our Voice” programme, which aired on Bangladesh Television on April 29 2011.

The minister added, “It might seem surprising to you, as we do not have any wars or anything, but we still need this money to ensure our sovereignty as a nation. After defence, it is education and then it ought to be health, but that is not the case. Infrastructure comes in after education. Then comes the health sector. In terms of lower allocation, cultural affairs, sports sectors get relatively lower allocations.”

Can the government increase budget allocation in education and health sectors, asked Shohagh from Lalbagh. “Every year, we are increasing allocation in these two sectors, but we also need to have the capacity to spend the allocated money. For instance, there’s lack of teachers in schools. I can give allocation for that but recruiting teachers is a time-consuming process. If you want to build a hospital to cater to the need of the health sector, it will take three years to build it. So, there should be a balance between budget and the sector’s ability to spend,” he explained.

Hasibul Hossain Pranto, a school student and a child journalist, pointed out that there is qualitative gap between the education received by the rural and urban students, which mainly stems from economic reasons. Can this inequality be mitigated, he asked.

“If we compare the rural areas to district towns, we will see the rural areas to be at much disadvantage. But Bangladesh is such a country where we cannot make progress if we continue to ignore rural areas. At least 73 per cent population live in rural areas and they have little chances of coming out of the rural areas due to slow pace of urbanisation. We, therefore, have to reach out to the villages with our services to make a difference to this situation. But it is a long-drawn process,” replied the minister.

Is it possible to have industrialisation in our country without damaging the climate? Responding to this question from Rana of Rangpur, the minister said, “One of major problems facing our country is unemployment. Industrialisation will help mitigate unemployment to a great extent, but while industrialising, we must take care not to jeopardise the environment. In fact, today’s climate disaster is the result of couple of centuries of mindless industrialisation by the West, so now we have to strike a just balance between the two. We have to plough in a marginal part of the dividend earned from industrialisation into protection of environment.”

In greater Rangpur and Dinajpur districts, indigenous people are gradually becoming landless and are lagging behind in education and other areas. Does the budget have any special provision for the development of such indigenous population, asked Maimuna Mercia from Rangpur.

To this, the minister made a candid confession, saying: “In our country, the weaker the people, the more deprived they are. Almost all the tribal people of Bangladesh are more or less neglected. Keeping this in mind, this government has taken a few initiatives to develop and educate them. But the benefit of these measures can only be seen in the long term. As many of the tribal groups have lost their land inheritance rights, all that we can do for them right now is to help them develop their skills through various initiatives so that they can earn a living and sustain themselves.”

Making an emotional plea to the Finance Minister, Kazi Alam from Dhamalkot, Dhaka, says works as a porter and attends school at the same time but he doesn’t like the work of a porter and doesn’t want to continue it. Can you assure that poor children like us can solely concentrate on their studies rather than working? “If you can prove your eligibility as a good student, I think we can accommodate you under various scholarship schemes that the government has for poor students. Additionally, we are also thinking to revise the rates of these scholarships so that children like you can solely concentrate on your studies,” he ended on a note of optimism.



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