Pandemic drives laid-off low-income earners back to villages
When Shamim Howladar, a private car driver, asked to borrow Tk 1,000 last month, businessman Muhibur Rahman Sumon graciously agreed.
He is a regular customer and an acquaintance, Sumon, who offers laundry and mobile money services in his shop in Mirpur's Rupnagar, thought to himself.
A few other customers of his laundry shop had also borrowed between Tk 500 and Tk 1,000 from him recently, Sumon told bdnews24.com. To his surprise, when Sumon sought to collect the debt, he found that all of them had left Dhaka with families for their village homes.
"When I called Shamim, he said he got Tk 8,000 instead of his regular salary of Tk 12,000 in April. Also, his wife lost her job in a garment factory. After waiting for a month to weigh up his options, Shamim went back to his native Naogaon with his family. He was unable to run the household with just Tk 7,000," said Sumon.
Shamim said he borrowed money from Sumon as he did not have enough to cover his travel expenses. He promised to repay the money when he returns to the capital after the situation returns to normal.
As the coronavirus epidemic rampaged through the country, it took a heavy toll on people from the middle and lower-income groups who were no longer able to cope with the higher living costs in Dhaka.
At least 35 of his regular customers lost their jobs and went back to their ancestral homes since the disease emerged in the country in March, said Md Obaidullah, a grocer in Rupnagar. Customers who owe him money are not picking up Obaidullah's phonecalls.
"Some of them owe me up to Tk 10,000. I have a lot of debts too but I don't know I'm going to clear them. I get stressed out thinking about it," he said.
Mahfuzur Rahman Manik, owner of a small block printing factory in Mirpur's Eastern Housing, laid off his 30 workers and shuttered his business when the government imposed a lockdown in March in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus. He is not sure when his factory will resume operations.
"We heard that most small factories have been closed while the bigger ones laid off 30 percent of their workforce."
Rahima Khatun, who was employed by Ha Mim Group, lost her job unexpectedly at the start of the epidemic. Living in a rented house in West Begunbari, Rahima, the mother of two, was no longer able to make ends meet and went back to her village home in Feni on Jul 1.
Bangladesh enforced a two-month shutdown of offices, schools and public transport from Mar 26 as coronavirus cases and deaths began to surge. While the lockdown was lifted on May 31, life in the capital is yet to return to business as usual.
Offices are open but on a limited scale while the turnout at shops and restaurants have been markedly low.
Mohammed Russell, who worked in Rainbow CafÃ© in Mohammedpur, went back to in Narsingdi after losing his job.
He returned to the capital after the lockdown restrictions were rolled back and is now selling masks, sanitisers and seasonal fruits on a sidewalk while waiting for the cafÃ© to reopen.
"I'll wait for some time and then go back again," he told bdnews24.com.
Like Russell, thousands of people working in the informal sector have been forced to leave Dhaka in the wake of the economic slowdown triggered by the coronavirus crisis.
While it is difficult to put an exact figure on the exodus, the growing number of To-let signs on buildings indicates that it is quite high.
More than a thousand people in his neighbourhood have gone back to their villages after losing their jobs, according to Jahid Patwari, a building owner in Rupnagar.
He usually rents out the ground floor of his building to small families. At least two such households, where the breadwinners worked in garments factories, returned to their village homes in the last two months.
"Other house owners that I have spoken to said that most families from the lower-income groups are leaving Dhaka empty-handed."
Government data on the number of people who have left Dhaka or lost their jobs are still unavailable.
The lockdown imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus curtailed the earnings of at least 95 percent of people, while 51 percent of households were consigned to zero income, according to a survey conducted by BRAC on Jun 20.
Urban areas have a higher number of families with no income in comparison to rural areas. Households run by women were the hardest-hit. The garment sector, which employs the majority of those women in the urban areas, has been left reeling from the global pandemic which in turn has seen workers' incomes plunge.
The average monthly income slipped to Tk 7,096 from Tk 24,565 in every thana after the lockdown was imposed.
According to BRAC's survey, earnings have dropped by 79 percent in cities and 75 percent in rural areas.
The pandemic has pushed almost 16.4 million people to poverty, Dr Binayak Sen, research director in Bangladesh Institution of Development Studies or BIDS, found in a new study. Workers in the urban areas faced an 80 percent slump in their income while in the rural areas, it dropped by 10 percent.
The unemployed population rose to 30 percent from 17 percent after the pandemic hit the economy, according to Sen.
People, who once flocked to the capital in search of a living, are now going the other way due to the coronavirus crisis, which has put their livelihoods in doubt.
Economists urged the government to focus on this issue to prevent the ongoing crisis from spiralling further.
The project 'Amar Gram Amar Shohor' (My village my city) should be moved forwards, according to economist Ahsan H Mansur.
With the expansion of digital facilities, including wifi internet, in the rural areas, new entrepreneurship and employment opportunities will can now emerge there, according to some government higher-ups.
The overall poverty rate is 20.3 percent at present, which may cross 25 percent by the end of the year, warned Sen.
The poverty rate can only be kept below 25 percent if 50 percent of workers' income is recovered in both the third and final quarter, he said while warning about dire economic consequences otherwise.