Following rumours that salt prices would go up like those of onions, people across the country went into panic buying yesterday, emptying shelves.
The government swung into action and mobile courts jailed eight traders, fined 15 people and dozens of stores, and held 52 people for stockpiling and selling salt for unreasonable prices.
The rumours started spreading like wildfire, on the streets and in social media, since Monday afternoon and people who had to endure the recent onion price hike got spooked and made a dash to stores in huge numbers, buying a lot more table salt than they needed.
Unscrupulous traders across the country took advantage of the panic buying and jacked up the prices as high as Tk 80 a kg, which is usually Tk 25-35.
The chaos prompted police and local administration to launch drives in the capital, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Bogura, Dinajpur, Thakurgaon, and Moulvibazar.
There were also reports of panic buying in Cox’s Bazar, Chattogram, Lalmonirhat, Chandpur, Cumilla, Pirojpur, Narayanganj, and Bagerhat.
The government even issued a press note yesterday, warning stern actions against anyone spreading rumours about salt or anything else in social media.
“A quarter has been involved in spreading rumours in the country in a planned way. And there is an evil attempt to spread rumours about the supply of salt,” the statement read.
It noted that the industries ministry already assured people of enough salt stocks and freshly produced salt in the market in December.
There is no shortage of salt and no possibility of supply shortfall, the statement said.
Millers and leading salt companies also said there was no shortage of salt.
Bangladesh Small & Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) said that misleading information over salt stocks and price were being spread by an unscrupulous group.
Salt production in the country hit a record 18.24 lakh tonnes in 2018-19 fiscal year, the BSCIC said.
The Police Headquarters requested people to dial 999 or inform their local police stations if shop owners demanded exorbitant prices for salt.
Since Monday afternoon, rumours started making the rounds in social media that there would be a shortage of salt supply and the prices would go through the roof.
Panic buying started first in Sylhet with people thronging grocery shops.
Motaleb Miah, a rickshaw-puller, was seen buying two kg of salt from a convenient store in Baluchar area of Sylhet Monday night.
“My neighbour told me that he saw on Facebook that salt prices will rise from Tuesday. We can do without onions but not without salt. So, I rushed to buy some salt and stock up,” he said.
Shawkat Ali Chowdhury of Majortila in Sylhet, said, “I saw it on Facebook and then I sent my son to the store. The store owner charged Tk 60 for a kg bag of branded salt, which is usually Tk 35.”
As the rumours kept spreading, the district administration’s mobile courts raided key places. On Monday night, magistrates fined several traders in Gowainghat upazila, Sylhet city, and Barlekha upazila of Moulvibazar and Chhatak upazila of Sunamganj for stockpiling.
In Dhaka, people gathered at grocery shops and kitchen markets. Some bought four to five kg of salt even though they needed just a kg a month.
Many grocery shopkeepers told customers that they were out of salt even though they were not, claimed buyers.
Amena Khatun, of Gudaraghat in Mirpur, said she went to Mirpur Shah Ali City Corporation Market after hearing about the salt price hike from her neighbour.
“She told me that the price of salt would jump to Tk 200. Besides, salt will not be available from tomorrow [Wednesday] as there is a crisis. That’s why I came,” she said.
Amena bought five kgs. Usually, she buys two kg a month.
Abul Hossain, the owner of Mehedi Store in the market, said he had two cartons of salt to sell over the entire week but it was all gone by yesterday afternoon.
The Daily Star correspondents found customers thronging kitchen markets in the city to buy salt.
It was the weekly holiday for Karwan Bazar kitchen market in the capital but hundreds went there to buy salt from small grocery shops since morning.
A kg was selling for as high as Tk 80.
As the crowd became bigger, police first prevented retailers from selling more than a kg to a person but around 3:00pm police closed all shops.
Humanyun Alam, a distributor of a salt brand in Karwan Bazar wholesale market, said, “I had a stock of 1,000 cartons and all of them were sold yesterday.”
He said they usually sell around 200-300 cartons a day.
Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi at a briefing said the monthly demand for salt was 1 lakh tonnes but the country had 6.5 lakh tonnes in stock.
Salt Mills Owners Association said a vested quarter spread the rumours to “destroy the industry” and to create an unstable situation.
Nurul Kabir, president of the association, told The Daily Star, “There is three months’ stock of salt with us. Furthermore, new salt will come in 15 to 20 days. There is no salt crisis ... .”
Claiming that there were four lakh tonnes of salt in stock against a monthly demand of 1.50 lakh tonnes, he urged all traders not to increase the price.
At least 19 lakh tonnes would be produced between December and May, he added.
Syed Alamgir, managing director of ACI Consumer Brands, told The Daily Star, “We did not change the price of salt. We are supplying salt normally.”
Asif Iqbal, deputy managing director FMCG of Meghna Group of Industries, which markets Fresh brand salt, said, “Based on our average sales, we have got adequate stocks to meet the demands of our customers for the next two months.”
Our district correspondents reported that people thronged convenient stores from noon to buy salt.
Police and the local administrations used megaphones to ask locals not to pay heed to the rumour.