Essentials’ prices: 44 cases filed over market manipulation

Bangladesh Competition Commission to hold hearing on Sept 26

Bangladesh Competition Commission has filed 44 cases against a host of individuals and organisations, accusing them of creating an artificial crisis that led to abnormal hikes in prices of items like rice, flour, eggs, poultry and toiletries.

Abdus Sabur, secretary of BCC, told The Daily Star that the cases were filed on Wednesday on various charges under Section 15 of the Competition Act, 2012, and the hearing will begin on September 26.

Action will be taken against them as per the law, he told this correspondent yesterday.  

Section 15 states that no person shall, directly or indirectly, enter into any agreement or collusion -- in respect of production, supply, distribution, storage or acquisition of any goods or services -- which causes or is likely to cause an adverse effect on competition or creates monopoly or oligopoly in the market.

Nasreen Begum, a member (law) of BCC, said those who have been sued had abnormally increased the prices of their products, controlled the market and created an artificial crisis.

It all led to instability in the market, she told this correspondent yesterday.

A senior official of the commission, which aims to make the market competitive through advocacy, engagement and enforcement of the law, said if the allegations against the individuals and companies are proved, they  can fine them up to 1-10 percent of their annual turnover according to the law.

It could not be known exactly how many individuals and business entities are facing the cases but The Daily Star obtained a list from a BCC source, which mentions 22 names. According to the source, this is not the full list.   

Contacted, BCC officials concerned, however, divulged only a few names of individuals and companies, whom this newspaper tried to reach.  

The individuals include traders based in Dhaka and other districts, association leaders, millers and managing directors of several companies while the organisations include some well-known producers, manufacturers and distributors, they said.

Over the past several months, the market has seen an unusual rise in prices of rice, oil, flour, eggs, chicken, soap, detergent and toothpaste, which shot up the living cost of people. 

To bring back the market stability, the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection has held meetings with the manufacturers and marketers, in addition to conducting regular drives, and raised the issue of abnormal price hikes.

Contacted last night, Shamima Akhter, head of corporate affairs of Unilever Bangladesh, one of the companies facing the cases, said they could not comment on the issue immediately since they had not yet received the notice.

"But I can say that Unilever is a compliant company. We always follow local laws."

She added, "Once we receive the notice, we will review it and take all necessary steps required by the law, and we are always ready to cooperate with the  competition commission."

Mohammad Amanat Ullah, president of Tejgaon's Egg Merchants' Association, whose name is on the list of the accused, said, "I have received the notice about the case. We will present our arguments at the hearing though I don't understand why the case was filed."

Moshiur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Poultry Industries Central Council and managing director of Paragon Poultry Ltd, said they received the notice yesterday afternoon.  "The notice only mentioned when we have to appear for the hearing."

It is still not clear whether the commission has been able to correctly identify the reasons behind the price hike, he said. "I don't want to say more now."

Mohammad Dabirul Islam Didar, head of finance and accounts at Bangladesh Edible Oil Ltd, another company on the list, said they don't know anything about this and have not "received any notice about the case".

"So, I can't comment on this now," he added.

The Daily Star could not reach any official of City Group, which is also mentioned on the list, for comments.

This correspondent tried to contact the Kazi Farms managing director, Kazi Zahedul Hasan, who is among those sued by the commission, but he was unreachable.    

In August, the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection (DNCRP) recommended the BCC file a case against Kazi Farms for destabilising the market by hiking the price of eggs through illogical auctions.

According to a DNCRP probe report, major producers colluded with each other to push the prices of eggs to an unprecedented level in August. 

The prices of eggs started spiralling upwards from August 9 and reached a record high on August 13, unseen since the bird-flu scare a decade ago. The prices of a dozen eggs reached as high as Tk 160 then.

The prices of most other essentials have been skyrocketing in recent months, a situation for which traders blame the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, while consumer rights activists suspect profiteering by syndicates.    

According to the state-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, the price of plain rice has increased by 11 percent in the last one year, non-branded flour by 57 percent, branded flour by 51 percent, loose soybean oil by 31 percent, bottled soybean by 36 percent, lentils by 21 percent, potato by 32 percent, sugar by 19 percent, and farm eggs by 26 percent.

A well-known brand of bath soap weighing 150g sold for Tk 58 a year ago but now it is Tk 75, which is a 29 percent rise.

Similarly, a 500g packet of detergent priced at Tk 60 in January now sells for Tk 90. This means the price has increased by 50 percent in eight months.

The price of a 100g toothpaste has gone up from Tk 70 to Tk 75 in April-May to Tk 85 to Tk 95 at present, which is a rise of 21 to 27 percent.

Powdered milk prices have also risen by 26 to 28 percent in last one year.

As the high cost of daily goods kept hurting the pockets of consumers already struggling to make ends meet, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had to call upon the people to concentrate on boosting food production, saving and showing austerity in all stages.

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