05/09/2008, 00.00
TAJIKISTAN
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Authorities to withhold half of salary as a “voluntary donation” for public works

More than half of the population is living below the poverty line (less than a dollar a day) in a country devastated by a harsh winter, failed crops and locusts eating their way across its southern fields. A corrupt government holds its population in fear and so few will refuse the “donation”.

Dushanbe (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tajik authorities have asked residents in the capital Dushanbe to give up part of their salaries “voluntarily” to help finance construction of the Rogun hydropower plant. Dushambe’s mayor, Makhmadsaid Ubaidullayev, launched the idea on 29 April, noting that if every working individual in the capital donated half of his/her salary for May and June, the state could raise roughly US$ 10 million.

Confident of a positive response, Mr Ubaidullayev immediately instructed government agencies and state enterprises to withhold 50 per cent of the salaries normally due employees.

For experts he is likely to get away with his request for “donations” since people are afraid of retaliation against those who refuse, especially in the private sector.

In the cold winter that just ended electrical power was severely rationed, including in the capital. For experts the millions of dollars that might be raised are but a drop in the bucket since the government itself estimates that the price tag for the Rogun plant will be around US$ 550 million, US$ 1.5 billion according to other estimates.

Tajikistan is the poorest country in the region. Labour and Social Protection Minister Shukurjon Zukhurov recently said that half of the population lives below the poverty line (less than a dollar a day), that the minimum monthly salary is 20 somoni (less than 6 dollars), and the average salary at the beginning of 2008 was 213 somoni (about ).

United Nations figures depict an even worse picture. According to a recent statement issued by the UN World Food Programme, 550,000 Tajiks are suffering from malnutrition, and roughly 260,000 are in need of “emergency assistance.” For the UN agency about two-thirds of Tajiks were living in poverty.

The country is also reeling from the hardships caused by a particularly cold winter weather which affected the harvest. It is also experiencing an overall inflation rate in 2007 that stood at 19.7 per cent, partly due to the rapid worldwide rise in prices for basic foodstuffs.

As if matters were not bad enough locusts have swarmed the country’s cotton and wheat fields. Over 76,000 hectares of arable land was consumed this way so far, and another 200,000 hectares are at risk.

Despite the lack of essential services like electricity, the country’s external debt has almost doubled over the past three years, climbing to US .2 billion from about US$ 683 million in 2005, against the government’s current annual budget estimated at US$ 700 millions.

The government has also been accused of corruption. On 30April, Tajik officials were forced to accept a joint programme to monitor the future activities of the National Bank of Tajikistan, which had been accused by the International Monetary Fund of fraudulent practices in connection with the loans.

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