'Let them eat cake'
THE other evening I had been to a wedding ceremony at a 5-star city hotel. It was a large turnout. The costliest dish kachchi biriyani was served. For making kachchi the finest quality of rice is used, which costs around Taka 80.00 per kilo.
Rice, these days, is headline news because of the confounding price hike. I am not in any way suggesting that kachchi should not be served to a limited number of guests because the price of rice is high. It is the contrast between the price of every day rice, paizam or Irri, and the price of the rice used for kachchi that is uppermost in my mind.
Indeed, everyday life for the common man has become difficult with the price hike going out of control. The high price of ordinary variety of rice -- Taka 36.00 per kilo -- is quite a blight in a land fabled for its bountiful harvest. The price of the finer varieties like nizershail and miniket is a staggering Taka 42.00 per kilo. This is the land where fortune seekers from the west used to come in the olden times for its bountiful and low priced agriculture produce. Sonar Bangla was not a fable it was a reality, and we have heard that during Shaista Khan's rule one taka fetched 8 maunds of rice.
I will readily accept that the price of soybean oil has gone up in the international market. Even the price of flour, Taka 38.00 per kilo, is acceptable because we don't produce much wheat. But what has happened to rice? During Awami League's 1996-2001 tenure rice price was stable.
During BNP's first term in 1993 the price of rice plunged to Taka 6.00 per kilo. There was hue and cry that farmers had been let down. Then what went wrong, and where, after 2001? This has to be addressed if the country does not want to slide into further crisis. West Bengal, that in the past used to get rice from the hinterlands of this part, is managing its agriculture market quite efficiently. CPM rule has been remarkably successful in building a buoyant agrarian sector with the help of cooperatives. Round the year, fresh produce arrive at Kolkata with the first light of the dawn, and price hikes of our kind never rock the Kolkatans.
One may take an insouciant stand by saying that rice price hike should not be a matter of concern since nobody is dying of starvation. It may, furthermore, be argued that it is an indication of the rising purchasing power of the common man owing to greater money supply in the market. The logic reminds one of Marie Antoinette's remark, "let them eat cake."
I accept the plea of inflationary pressure. I accept that the rise in remittance earning has contributed to greater spending and has spurred money supply. There has also been a perceptible rise in the social and human index all over Bangladesh. But these, in no way, justify the bewildering rise in the price of rice.
Indeed, the cost of producing rice has increased. Prices of agriculture inputs have steeply risen over the years. Rice production all over Bangladesh has become more and more dependent on surface water in the absence of a system to preserve excess monsoon water. The water system of Bangladesh is also in a state of decline. Canals, even rivers, have been lost, and we have been profligate in using our water. Japan has no river, yet the Japanese toil so hard to produce rice. Farm hands have also become costlier, and though it is a minor factor it, nonetheless, adds to the rise in the price of rice.
There has been a considerable expansion in the road network of Bangladesh over the years, supported by bridges over the river Jamuna, Meghna and Padma (Paksey-Bheramara). This has facilitated transportation of goods all over the country. The devil also stalks them. A combine of political predators, unscrupulous traders and transportation thugs add their toll to the price of rice.
The combine has countrywide clout, and operates from the growers level up to the marketing outlets. It controls the supply and the eventual price of rice. It is everywhere. It is, therefore, difficult to isolate the pathogen and rid the network of the devil. The government cannot roll them back. It will only aggravate the crisis. Such is its might that the government had to permit them to use the spaces under the approach spans of Babubazar bridge for stacking the wholesale rice bags. The plea being that withdrawal of such facilities would add to the storage problem and cause eventual rise of price. Still, the price kept on rising.
The message is that the government does not have any leverage to control the combine. A government is a contract with the people, and it has to ensure that they have access to the basic needs. Food is most basic of all needs. Here the role of the government is a matter of highest importance.
It is national honour that works behind Japan's subsidy of rice production. The mantras of the World Bank and IMF will not be in the interest of Bangladesh. Even United States of America protects it dairy products, and France protects its agriculture produce. If subsidy is the recipe for stabilising the price of rice let it be. The support has to be given at the growers level.
The foremost thing the government has to do is to outsmart the private sector combine. The advantage lies with the government because it has greater experience. It is necessary that government measures should put a cap on the price. Rationing, in the past, had kept the price of rice stable, and it can be reintroduced in limited form.
Coscor, run on the profit motive, can be revived in metropolitan centres. The ways for the government are many. To say that the government can't do anything about bringing down the price of rice is a capitulation of national interest. Bangladesh is far more capable than that.