12:00 AM, April 12, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 12, 2008

Post Breakfast

Exorbitant prices creating havoc

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Muhammad Zamir

ORDINARY citizens are not only weary but just about fed up with the continuous bickering between the authorities and the economists. Even now, while starvation is stalking the countryside, responsible authorities are playing around with words and denying that there is a crisis of major proportions.
I am not referring here only to cereals -- rice and wheat -- but also to other essential items. This includes edible oil, milk powder, fish, chicken and other sources of cheap protein. Some in the government have tried to explain away the rise by mentioning that there has been a steep increase in prices of food commodities all over the world. The other day someone pointed out to me that India had now fixed rice export price at US dollar 1000 per tonne. He was saying this because he was underlining that the price of rice in our market might reach Taka 70 per kilogram. He was also suggesting that the price of flour would reach Taka 60 per kg by the end of this financial year.
The price of edible oil has already crossed Taka 105 per litre and milk powder is prohibitively expensive. Lentil has similarly gone beyond the reach of the common man. So what is going to happen to the traditional Bangalee who has grown up on dal and bhat?
I am writing today about this aspect of our daily life not only to highlight the misery being faced by the common man but also to point out the impossibility of their living with dignity and honesty. We can talk of fighting corruption but we also need to ensure that people are not forced to be corrupt to meet their basic needs of food, education and healthcare.
The other day I ran across one of my former peons in the kitchen market. He had lost weight and was exceptionally thin. I asked him the reason for this deterioration. A pious man and a strict practicing Muslim, he stroked his beard and then told me that he had given up any form of breakfast along with his wife. He said he could not afford it any more. The savings went into preparation of meager tiffin for his school going daughter. He then went on to add that his entire family ate a little bit of rice only during dinner in the form of 'Panta-bhat' (not being able to afford lentils). I asked him about his other friends. He laughed and said that almost everyone had become vegetarian, with potato as the principal vegetable, and had given up tea with milk. Everyone now drank raw tea, once a day, if funds so permitted, with ginger or one clove. He went on to add (with a smile) that the local doctor had advised them that the current rise in prices of food items was probably designed by Allah to ensure that they had less of 'rich' (high cholesterol) food and a more healthy diet. He however had tears in his eyes when he mentioned that he wished he had spare change to have fish at least once a week. He also added that he was a person with 'Iman' and so could not be corrupt. He also remarked that the government had failed to ensure that its servants could live with dignity. I was going to buy some fruits. I desisted the temptation and offered the money to him instead. He refused to take the money but agreed to take home some fruits if I bought them for his family.
What I heard was a classic case of malnutrition in the making.
I have since been informed by villagers, particularly from the northern and southwestern parts of the country that most families are living only on a diet of just potatoes. If this is not a form of silent famine, what is? Soaring prices are also forcing thousands of additional landless labourers to migrate and seek work in the urban areas every day. In most cases there are also reports that many are withdrawing their children from school and starting them off in lowly paid menial jobs.
The media has recently reported that the government has decided to form a new high-powered core committee, headed by the Chief Adviser to cushion the effects of soaring food prices. It has also been mentioned that the government has decided to increase the sale of rice under the open market sale (OMS) mechanism. This will be in addition to the already existing efforts undertaken with the help of the Bangladesh Rifles. There has also been another report that the Dearness Allowance for government servants will be enhanced.
All these are sensible steps but will they cover the cross section of the population? Providing Dearness Allowance to government servants is but touching the tip of the iceberg. It is only a palliative measure. We have to remember that more than 98 per cent of the population does not work for the government. Similarly nothing is being done for the senior citizens who have retired from their respective areas of employment and might be on fixed pensions. What is this section supposed to do? We need to think about them too. I know that we are not living in a welfare state, but time has come to seriously consider subsidizing basic food items for senior citizens. They need to be supported with regard to purchase of a minimum requirement of rice, flour, edible oil, lentil and sugar every week. A special form of rationing could be introduced for the elders (above the age of sixty five), both in the urban as well as in the rural areas.
The government, till now, appears to have pursued market management policies in a manner that has generated controversy. It has made them unpopular because the efforts undertaken have been mostly unsuccessful. They consistently refused to accept the signs on the wall and the opinions of economists since the beginning of this fiscal year.
Consequently, there was little effective perspective planning not only in arranging import of scarce items at lower prices but also in the procurement process of domestic food grains. In addition, insufficient attention was given towards agro-commodity marketing, balanced use of fertilizer and sustainable seed supply. It was also disappointing to see absence of any form of dialogue on the evolving crisis with representatives of political parties.
It has been fortunate for the country that common sense and clear thinking finally prevailed among a section of the agronomists before the current Boro season. They need to be congratulated for having helped in the expansion of Boro cropping for this year. I understand that Boro cultivation this year has been in 4.9 million hectares, almost 0.4 million hectares more than the previous year. As a result we are expecting an additional rice crop of one million tons. Hopefully this will enable us to reduce the deficit in our food requirement, assist in rice price stability over the coming months and improve our required food security situation through creation of a bigger food reserve. We must do this with all seriousness because the global rice inventories are right now, according to Financial Times, at 25-year lows.
This will require restructuring of the country's agricultural system and a more intensive and integrated approach towards food strategy, on a short, medium and long-term basis. Appropriate and useful technologies required for extension and development of new varieties of food items should also be disseminated among the farmers and entrepreneurs in the rural areas. Measures should also be undertaken to provide them with easier and cheaper access to credit.
The government needs to understand that many of the reforms they have introduced in the sphere of governance might eventually fall apart if the there is a spontaneous law and order situation created by this nagging price spiral. Some can remain hungry for some of the time. This will however not be a tenable proposition for months together, specially for poorly paid fixed income families and millions of landless, uprooted rural people whose daily family income has finally become equivalent to one and half kilo of rice. The rubber band of patience can continue to stretch but is bound to eventually snap.
We have today a crisis of major proportions. The government must now come forward and initiate on a priority basis, dialogue with political parties, and seek their views (based on their local experience) on how to transcend this prevailing national calamity till the holding of the general elections. I am confident that such a constructive engagement will enable them to identify measures that might ease the situation and put a stop to 'super-profit' making being carried out currently by some unscrupulous cartels, syndicates and greedy traders. Such an arrangement could start through the seeking of views from political representatives about the forthcoming budget. It is a question of political will and necessary commitment. Everything else will then follow suit.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador who can be reached at mzamir@dhaka.net.

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