Moment of truth for AHM Mustafa Kamal

Despite criticism against the health sector which has been neglected for years, the amount of allocation for the sector is appalling: it has been proposed that the allocation be increased from last year’s Tk 25,732 crore to Tk 29,247 crore in the new budget

Shamim A. Zahedy

It was a moment of truth for AHM Mustafa Kamal, the 73-year-old finance minister, as on 11 June 2020 he tabled the national budget of Tk 5.68 trillion, or 5,68,000 crore taka, for 2020-21 fiscal year in parliament amid a pandemic that the world has never witnessed in the past one hundred years.

Contrary to the expectations that he would be kept focused on priority areas such as health, agriculture, social safety nets and education rather than putting lofty projects on a pause for now, Kamal kept himself confined to the tradition, outlaying Tk 1.9 trillion, or Tk 1.9 lakh crore, deficit of the budget. He said that the shortfall would be fulfilled through borrowing from internal and external sources.  

Critics however said the global economic recession and the state of local and international economies were not considered in the fragile structure of the proposed budget, leading to a ballooning deficit of 6 percent of GDP, a deviation from traditional 5 percent in recent past, against the backdrop of a big gap between income and expenditure.

The criticism comes on the back of Kamal’s compromise with the current 2020 FY GDP growth in his very budget speech. “We achieved a GDP growth of 8.15 percent in the FY 2018-19, the highest among the countries in Asia. Strong domestic demand has been the main driver of our growth. However, due to the fall in exports and lower-than-expected growth in remittances as a result of long and sustained worldwide lockdowns arising from the impact of COVID-19, the GDP growth rate of the current fiscal year has been revised downward at 5.2 percent.”

Yet in an ostensibly paradoxical move the businessman-turned finance minister, who only the other day in parliament boasted about his achievement of being the world’s best finance minister by The Banker, a London-based business magazine, beating candidates from Asia Pacific, America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, set an inordinately tall growth target.

“However, in view of the post-Covid recovery, the growth rate is projected at 8.2 percent for FY 2020-21 in line with the long-term plans.”

Nevertheless, a little while ago on June 8, World Bank released a depressing forecast of Bangladesh’s GDP growth saying that it would come down to 1.6 percent in the current fiscal year ending on June 30.

The country may also witness drastic declines to 1 percent in the coming 21 fiscal year, added the multilateral donor agency.  

Kamal, who presented his second budget as finance minister this year, defended his position, terming the proposed budget as “not typical.” The government is not concerned about the source of income, but only about saving lives, he told the customary post-budget media briefing the following day.

 “Dream big” dictum is important to move forward but one should know what dream means. APJ Abdul Kalam says, “Dream is not that which you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep.” Daydream does not help.

Despite hitting the priorities right, the finance minister’s allocation for essential sectors in the times of novel coronavirus pandemic is meagre.

The allocation for social safety net programmes has been earmarked at Tk 95,574 crore—up from Tk 81,865 crore last year. It will indeed be challenging to dole out succor to the pandemic-induced new poor of around 30 million.

Allocation for education too remains below expectation. The government has kept the allocation to this sector almost unchanged in terms of the size and percentage of GDP at 2.09 percent.

Despite criticism against the health sector which has been neglected for years, the amount of allocation for the sector is appalling: it has been proposed that the allocation be increased from last year’s Tk 25,732 crore to Tk 29,247 crore in the new budget, though a lump sum of Tk 10,000 crore has also been kept to fulfill emergency requirements in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

While land office is perhaps one of the glaring examples of graft in Bangladesh, the initiative to digitise the land registration process is a welcome move. The minister hopes once the inter-operability of electronic services or linkage is established between different government agencies, it will help ensure inter-connectivity and exchange of information at the field level among the land offices, settlement offices, sub-registrar offices and district registry offices, Directorate of Registration, other offices related to land, Election Commission, Department of Immigration and Passport, and Birth and Death Registration Office.

Despite criticism the finance minister’s move to allow undisclosed cash and assets in the formal economy at 10 percent tax on the value of the declaration in the trying times when cash flow is drying up is understandable. However, good taxpayers should have been patted with alternatives.

Cutting corruption is just a cliché phrase as the finance minister has said the government has taken a zero tolerance approach against corruption.  “To completely uproot corruption from the society to ensure the real socio-economic development in the country, the Anti-Corruption Commission is working to develop an administrative structure based on good governance.”

The budget is just not a ledger for a finance minister to keep at the corner of his/her room to be checked time to time, it is not a tally book for functionaries for daily official use. A finance minister’s responsibility is to instill faith and hope in people’s mind by unveiling vision through the budget.

As a custodian of the national exchequer, he or she has to see beyond the unseen, foresee the future, predict the volatility, forecast the instability, foretell the impulsiveness, anticipate the irregularity and prophesy the capriciousness before every ‘paisa’ is spent.

Graft reduction, economic reforms and good governance – all depend on people who govern the country and these people act only when they will be made aware of the fact that their fate lies on voters.

To speak of fair voting, the national budget also ought to spell out what a good election system means and invest on creating such a system with the help of technologies, which can cut corruption, be it administrative, financial, judicial or electoral.

Election Commission received an allocation of Tk 1,717 crore in the proposed budget for 2020-21 as against Tk1,920 crore in 2019-20, some 200 crore taka less.

It will be always good to invest money during peace time for quality execution, rather than investment in war time. Since there are no major elections in the next three years, it is time to go for building a robust election system.

Increased investment is also needed on the smart national ID card, which should be made mandatory for every voter to cast vote. System should be upgraded so the ID holder or voter can also be verified through iris scanning if fingerprint scanning is failed in electronic voting machines, eliminating fake voters and, most importantly, doing away with need for polling booth agents for candidates.

In the 11th parliamentary elections on December 30, 2018, there had been over 200,000 polling booths in over 40,000 polling centres to accommodate over 100 million voters with male and female ratio being almost 50 percent.

Over 80 percent problems relating to voting irregularities will be solved if there is no fake voter and there is no need for a polling agent.

Only good political system can guarantee a fair economy.

The writer is the executive editor of The Independent. He can be reached at

First printed :

13 June, 2020 10:04:06 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 13 June, 2020 10:40:54 PM

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