Queues for subsidised food getting longer
Braving heavy heat, she was standing in a long queue in the capital's Farmgate last week with hopes to buy some essential items at subsidised rates from a truck selling the products.
But 70-year-old Halima Khatun was not that lucky on Thursday. In fact, she has failed to purchase much-needed items in the last eight consecutive days except for weekends despite waiting for hours.
The reason: the people running the open market sales (OMS) operation of state-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) through the trucks have run out of stocks for the day as the demand has risen.
"The stocks get finished before I can reach the front of the line," Khatun said.
The breadwinner of a family of four washes utensils as a housemaid in three houses. During the gap between the shifts, she comes and stands in the queue.
She earns Tk 5,000 per month, and 80 per cent of it is spent on paying the house rent. In order to make ends meet, she has to depend on the generosity of a landlord, who now and then gives her money to buy groceries and pay house rent.
"I try to buy some items from the truck because the products are cheaper compared to the regular market price. But most of the day, I have to leave empty-handed," Khatun told The Daily Star, as she was sweating.
Like Khatun, many poor and low-income people stand in the line to buy the essentials at subsidised rates as their incomes have fallen because of the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown.
As many as 2.45 crore people have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, according to a survey by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and the Brac Institute of Governance and Development in April.
This means as much as 40 per cent of the population in Bangladesh was living in poverty, up from 20.5 per cent before the pandemic.
Although people have returned to work after the second wave of infections waned in August, the jobs are inferior and pay lower than in the past, according to analysts.
The spiralling of food prices in recent weeks, caused by the hike in prices in the global markets for growing demand and supply chain disruption, has made the queues longer than ever.
The prices of soybean and palm oil soared more than 50 per cent compared to last year, while that of lentil has increased as much as 30 per cent, according to data compiled by the TCB.
The price of onion has shot up by 50 per cent in the last month.
Under the OMS operation, the low-income people can buy a litre of soybean oil for Tk 100, and a kilogram of sugar for Tk 55, lentil for Tk 55 and onion for Tk 30.
In the kitchen market, the price of per litre soybean oil was Tk 135, per kilogram sugar Tk 79, lentil 85, and onion Tk 60, on October 14.
A person can buy a maximum of two litres of oil, four kilograms of onion, two kilograms of sugar and two kilograms of lentils.
In 2019, the government was selling subsidised essential items in 180 trucks in as many points. It rose to 300 in 2020 as the pandemic left millions of people without jobs, or with reduced incomes if they are lucky to retain jobs.
The number of trucks has now shot up to 450, according to the TCB. About 1,700 kilograms of products are sold through each truck.
Despite the increase in the number of trucks, Fahmida Akter, a housekeeper in the capital's Mirpur, had to leave empty-handed after waiting in the queue for five hours.
On Sunday, she came to the spot in front of Sony Cinema Hall in Mirpur at 9:30 in the morning and waited until 2 pm. Still, she still could not buy the items.
"I came here for the first time. As the prices of essentials are rising, I have become helpless."
"Where else can I go? I can't afford the tuition fees of my children, house rent and other expenses."
Sheuli Akhtar, who lives in Mirpur, regularly buys the essential items from the truck. She says she has to wait about two hours to make the purchase.
Baby Akhtar, a woman who pulls a rickshaw, was standing in the queue in the New Market area on Sunday.
Whenever the breadwinner of a family of four arrives, she is told the stock has run out by the staff selling the items.
"These long queues proved that there are many people who have fallen into poverty due to the pandemic. Their condition has worsened by the recent price hikes of essential commodities," said Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of the PPRC.
He suggested the government expand the social safety net programme and provide direct cash assistance.
"The demand for TCB products is huge," said Mostafizur Rahman, owner of Sumaiya Tanisha Enterprise, a dealer of the TCB that sells essential items near Mirpur Bangla College.
"There is a daily demand for 5,000 kgs of products in this spot, but we sell about 1,700-1,800 kgs of products. I have informed the TCB authority about the demand."
Some regular customers allege that syndicates have been formed around the spots where the items are sold.
People linked to the syndicates sell the products to dishonest merchants at higher prices after buying them at lower prices from the OMS operation, one of them says.
Humayun Kabir, a spokesperson of the TCB, also admits that there is an existence of syndicates in the Dhaka division.
Each group consists of 30 people. These people buy products from TCB trucks, go to the market, and sell them at a higher price, he said.
"We change the spot frequently so that the syndicates can't function," said Kabir.
"We are aware that many people stand in the line for a long time and go back without getting the items," he added.
The government's budgetary allocation for TCB's OMS operation was Tk 948 crore in FY21, up from Tk 876 crore in FY20, data from the finance ministry showed.
The government has allocated Tk 1,019 crore for FY22.