Notes from the Sub-Continent
Mayuri Mukherjee
Bangladesh: Optimistic but Unrealistic Budget?

On June 13, Bangladesh’s Awami League-government presented the country’s biggest-ever national budget, amounting to Tk 5,23,190 crore. However, most analysts and commentators seemed to agree that while the budget may have been well-intentioned, it was not realistic.

According to Zina Tasreen writing in the Daily Star, the budget was framed as a blueprint for how Bangladesh could become an upper middle-income country by 2030 and made many promises for economic reforms, but did not offer any specific details on how the government planned to achieve its ambitious revenue targets. It also “shied away from addressing the key challenges confronting the economy”, the newspaper said in a report summing up the views of a number of economists. Prothom Alo’s Shawkat Hossain panned the budget - the 11th one being presented by the incumbent regime -for bringing “nothing very new” to the table, despite changes in the economy. However, analysts Sushmita Basu, Syed Yamen Jahangeer and Bikash Chanda, writing in the Daily Tribune, opined that the new law on value-added tax VAT will “improve the ease of doing business in Bangladesh”.

Pakistan: Politics of Austerity

On June 11, Imran Khan’s government presented its first budget which came sooner after the economic survey painted a gloomy picture for the nation and the Prime Minister himself warned that austerity measures would have to be taken.

Accordingly, the Dawn noted in its editorial, that the government had chosen to “let Pakistanis feel the pain first”, asking the public to “make a large sacrifice for the sake of the macro-economic health of the state”. This was a big ask, according to Dr. Moonis Ahmar, who wrote in the Express Tribune that “Imran Khan had failed to come good on the many promises he had made to the people, like nipping corruption in the bud, bringing the stolen money back from abroad, eradicating bribery...!” Specifically, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar of Qaid-e-Azam University noted that Khan’s rhetoric on the country’s spiraling debt burden seemed to ring hollow for it’s well known that “loans (taken) to support the security apparatus” were part of the problem. “Take out the interrelated heads of defence and debt-servicing and our fiscal capacities look a lot better,'' Akhtar observed the Dawn. In addition, Khan was also criticised by the paper for bad strategy - at a time when the country was preparing to make “intense economic adjustments”, the Prime Minister has managed to upset several stakeholders including “the political opposition, the lawyer fraternity, and the business community of the country”.

Sri Lanka: Sovereignty at Stake

In Sri Lanka, the debate over a controversial military pact with the US continued unabated. The strategically located island nation seemed to push back against the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would lay down the framework under which US military personnel would operate in Sri Lanka, as Colombo sought to balance American, Chinese and indeed even Indian interests and influences in its backyard.

Writing in the Sunday Observer, columnist Sugeeswara Senadhira noted that a key issue in the debate was over “which country may exercise criminal jurisdiction over US personnel” and asked if the military pact was in Sri Lanka’s interest. The Sunday Times’ Neville de Silva also raised a similar concern. According to him, “A consequence of SOFA… is to enmesh Sri Lanka in big power geo-politics at a time when the Indian Ocean, a vital sea lane for Pacific nations, too, is increasingly becoming the centre of big power rivalry.” De Silva also called upon “pro-US lobbyists” to explain if “opening the doors to US militarism is the best medicine for Sri Lanka’s current woes”.

Nepal: Regulating Religion

After weeks of low-key opposition, large-scale public protests erupted across Nepal against a proposed law to regulate Hindu Guthis. The Guthis are community trusts that conduct social and religious activities. These activities are funded by revenue generated from land owned by the Guthis. The new law, tabled in Parliament on April 29, seeks to nationalise all Guthis and take control of all religious sites.

In its editorial, The Himalayan Times noted that people were worried that the proposed Guthi Authority would “wipe out the cultural and religious heritage as it will become no more than a recruitment ground for party cadres who have little or no attachment to the local culture”, and called upon the government to drop the bill. Sewa Bhattarai, writing in the Nepali Times, referred to the situation as a “culture revolution” but also pointed to some hard realities: Guthi members believe that “the government is working with the land mafia to take over Guthi property”, while law-makers argue that the bill is an attempt to “bring uniformity to Guthi administration… as many trusts do not keep proper accounts and are not answerable to anyone”.

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