Budget and Plebeian Thoughts
Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, Professor and Founder Chair, Dept. of Television, Film and Photography, DU: Budget discussions in Bangladesh and elsewhere are usually the domain of economic pundits who crunches numbers to reflect on national income and expenditure. Plebeians’ perspectives remain absent in the media. I believe everyone has a stake in the budget because it influences their life by swiping the commodity market. Although the finance minister in his usual casual mood asserted that the presentations of budgets during his tenure did not drive commodity prices upward, the reality has been otherwise. People who buy their essentials in day to day life would hardly take the finance minister’s words at face value while critics would say his words strove to prevaricate the facts.
Merchants in our country have a perversion to shoot the prices of essentials up every now and then. The presentation of a new budget lends them a unique opportunity for that. Only strict and constant monitoring of the market can keep these unscrupulous people away from the allure of this rent-seeking practice. Notwithstanding his casual and off the cuff remarks from time to time, the finance minister deserves appreciation for brandishing the courage of offering mega-budgets in the history of Bangladesh.
Economists have criticized the budget for not addressing the Achilles heel of our economy—the banking sector enfeebled by rampant plundering—a major failure of the minister. As an academic, I invoke attention from the government to the allocation for the education sector, the cornerstone of a prosperous society, which produces human resources for the economy. The proposed budget has made an increased allocation for the education and the ICT sectors, but it is still far behind the required amount. This time around, the education sector is allocated Tk53,054 crore, only about 2% of the GDP. In terms of GDP, it is one of the lowest allocations among South Asian countries. The Economic Association suggested allocating 8% of the GDP to revamp the education sector and increase the allocation gradually. It recommended increasing the amount of allocation this year to 2.6% of the GDP.
The major problems in our education sector include low salaries of school and privately-owned college teachers, inadequate funds and emphasis on research and innovation. The poor pay scale creates a double-barreled problem. On the one hand, it discourages talented graduates to adopt this profession, and on the other, pushes those who are already in this profession toward offering private tutoring for a better life. The proposed budget does not show any promise to address this.
Instead, it has provided unequal treatment to a section of the education sector. The budget has imposed a 5% VAT on English medium schools while there is no such tax on the schools offering education in Bengali medium and madrasas (Islamic seminaries). This state-sponsored unequal treatment has been initiated by being oblivious to the intervention of the apex court of the country. We may remember, several months ago, the finance minister imposed a 7.5% VAT on the privately universities and the English medium schools. The government had to write off the VAT imposed on the private universities because of a huge demonstration by the students, but maintained the VAT on the English medium Schools. To address this problem, a section of the parents sought the High Court’s intervention. They filed a writ petition challenging the legality of the government move of VAT imposition. The High Court imposed a moratorium on the collection of the VAT.
While the matter is yet to be resolved at the court, the finance minister has proposed a 5% VAT on the students of the English medium schools in the proposed budget. Can the state single out a section of students and impose VAT on them? The dictum of equality says: no it cannot. The constitution of the country also stands against treating education as a commodity. Hope our finance minister will come to his senses and review this proposal. Otherwise, he will provoke the ire of a significant portion of the middle-class parents, whose off-springs attend the English medium schools, toward the government in this election year.
Meanwhile, the pay scale of the teachers at the public colleges and universities got a much-needed bump with the declaration of the eighth national pay scale, but the allocation of money for research still receives a very low priority. It is a no-brainer to realize that research and innovation a sine qua non for creating a knowledge economy as well as a knowledge society.