WHETHER Eid comes only for the rich or whether it touches with some happy notes the lives of all classes of people, specially the poor, have been the subjects of a never-concluded debate. Some are determined to prove that the joys of the Eid are shared by all regardless of their station in life. They may point it out to you that even the undernourished children of rickshawpullers take a bath on Eid day as a refreshing gesture and wear some bright clothes or trinkets that their parents could afford and anticipate that some happiness is in the air for them; sitting in lotus position on the floors of their shanty dwellings the members of such a family attempt to enjoy a better than their usual meal for a day. The same constitutes delight and happiness for them, however ephemeral. The preponderant poor in the population of Bangladesh are so habituated to their never-ending miseries punctuated with a few flickers of a better feeling on such occasions as the Eid, it is explained
But the deepest joys of Eid can come only for the rich who are but a small part of the country's total population . The official estimates of the country's over the poverty line population is some 60 per cent or 78 million people. But this is considered as an exaggerated one by realists who say that the number above the poverty line is no more than 20 per cent of the population or only some 26 million people out of a total population size of over 130 million people. Thus, one needs no stretch of the imagination to realise the extent of the poverty situation and its happiness denial effect.
Of course, the view that the merriment of the Eid is reserved for the rich can be contended rightly as a sweeping generalisation. For not all in the rich classes are in a position to enjoy the Eid. There are the ones with terminal illnesses for whom no joy is conceivable despite their vast wealth. But these are the exceptions and exceptions do not prove the rule. This writer is only drawing attention to the general and universal rule that links happiness with material well-being.
For the rich, Eid comes with the pre-Eid pleasures that may include lavish foreign trips to buy costly Eid gifts for the family. The gifts can range from dresses costing in the range of a quarter million taka in some cases to expensive ornaments for the women and hand-stitched suits for the men from famous foreign tailoring shops. This contrasts with the dire struggle of those who toil so hard to produce the wealth for them that enables them to go for the profligate buying sprees.
This writer came across a wall poster on the eve of the Eid that showed the well groomed owner of a garments industry boarding an aircraft with his plump and bejewelled wife in tow along with the other overweight members of his family. They were going for their Eid shopping to Bangkok, Bombay and Malaysia. In one corner of the poster was seen a crowd of the wailing workers of his factory who were demanding arrear payment of their very modest salaries before the Eid so that they could go through the motion of buying some tid-bits to feel that they too were sharing in the happiness.
The point is that there is no way to delink happiness from material well-being. The poverty situation being so formidable in Bangladesh, notwithstanding clever attempts at juggling with statistics to prove that the same is diminishing, that this prevents people in their greatest number in this country to enjoy a sense of happiness that events like the Eid seek to promote. The ending of mass poverty is not only a religious duty. It makes pre-eminent business sense also because the more and more the millions of the impoverished climb out of their poverty conditions and join the league of free spending consumers, the greater will be the impetus among entrepreneurs to produce and supply the extra goods and services that would be demanded by the ones who have overcome their poverty. The same, in turn, will mean more production and hence more jobs and income, more employment and further production of wealth. In sum, the cycle of economic activities would spin faster and greater to lift up the standard of living of the people as a whole to improve the prospects of a far greater number in the population to meaningfully enjoy the happiness of Eids.
But successive governments in this country have failed to contribute substantially towards poverty alleviation. In fact, the pangs of poverty appear to have deepened during the present decade. Major studies of think-tank organisations, including one of the government's own, have established that income and opportunity disparities have widened between the better off classes and the poor with greater wealth concentration occurring in the hands of the better off sections of people while the real incomes of the poor as a whole have only declined. Clearly, such trends do not help to make a happier or merrier society and occasions like the Eid come as only an illusion of happiness for the poor in the country who are the majority in its population.
Governments need to take long-term fiscal and monetary policies, fine-tune them from time to time and preside successfully over them to be able to give an impetus to investments activities. Only from inducing investments in ample proportions can the economy grow at the desired rate and such growth can help to accelerate the reduction of poverty. But no government in the last two decades could quite put a pace to investment activities as is required to make a big enough positive change in the poverty situation.
Not only that, the government has been failing to control completely non economic factors like hoarding, profiteering and syndicate formation by unscrupulous businesses that have been most irrationally pushing up the prices of essential goods consumed by poor people and further eroding their very limited purchasing power. The process is, thus, making the poor even poorer. The price rises that have been unabated for the last couple of years turned simply unbearable before the Eid this year. The price escalations are continuing. The tortures of the poor as they were confronted with the sky-high prices of essentials in the market on the eve of the Eid, only added painfully to their existing miseries.
People of humble means in their millions -- who needed to travel to their village homes to observe the Eid -- questioned the worth of law enforcement or the presence of a government when they had to buy their tickets for buses, launches or trains from ticket black-marketers at several times their normal value. Not only that, they had to ride in great number on roofs of buses and trains or board congested launches -- risking their lives -- after paying for these over-priced tickets. This has been happening year after year, during every Eid, in recent years. The inability of the government to control such ticket black-marketing and risky travel stands out as an example of how negligent it can be in rendering a basic service to the poor as a way of helping them to observe what is counted as a nationally joyous occasion for all, the Eid.