It may seem like a scene from a Cold War-era political thriller: A farmer burns his own paddy field, out of frustration. The food minister declares: “This is a conspiracy against the government!” A parliament whip confronts the minister: “You cannot make fun of the farmers.” Enters the agriculture minister, apparently helpless, and offers his one pearl of wisdom: “More rice is being grown than needed. The farmers are not getting a fair price for their production, but nothing can be done about it now.”
This gloom-laden scene, however, is not from any movie. Anyone who has been following recent developments in the agriculture sector knows that it happened right here in Bangladesh. The question is: by producing more rice than necessary, did the farmers make a mistake or did they commit a crime?
It’s natural that increased production will lead to a lower price. To protect farmers from the fallout of such eventualities, governments usually buy, store and even export paddies and other food grains, if necessary. It’s a common practice all over the world. The price of the paddy, which is determined by taking into account its production cost and a fixed margin of profit for the farmers, is subsidised. This year, Bangladesh government has fixed the price of every maund of paddy at Tk 1,040.
But how much “profit” the farmers are making has become evident from a report by the Prothom Alo which, citing sources from the rice mill owners’ association and the food ministry, said the production cost of each maund of paddy is Tk 960. Discounting this cost, the farmer is supposed to have a profit of Tk 80 per maund which, all things considered, is a pittance in itself. But the reality is that far from making a profit, the farmer has to count a loss of Tk 400-500 per maund since he is being forced to sell it for Tk 450-500, well below the production cost itself.
This exposes the fault lines of the government’s rice procurement policy and the anti-farmer bias rooted in how the agriculture ministry functions. Note the comment by the Agriculture Minister Dr Abdur Razzaque: “Despite the unusual drop in rice prices, there is no scope for purchasing rice directly from the farmers and increasing the price at the moment” (The Daily Star, May 18). Earlier, on May 15, he made a similar comment in an interview with Ekattor TV. When asked why the government is procuring rice from the mill owners and not from the rice producers, despite setting a price for the latter, he argued that it was a logistically gargantuan task given the huge number of farmers involved, and other procurement and storage issues which, in his view, necessitated the use of services provided by the mills.
One thing is clear from his statement: the government had, and still has, no plan to purchase paddy directly from the farmers. The price was subsidised not for the sake of the famers, as was expected, but for the mill owners, who buy rice from the farmers and sell it to the government. Mill owners and others involved in the rice collection process are often linked to the ruling party. In other words, the beneficiaries of farm subsidies are not farmers.
Interestingly, the plight of the poor rice growers has ignited a debate about the affordability of other daily essentials such as water, meat and so on. For example, the going rate for one kilogramme of beef is Tk 525, which means that a farmer cannot even buy this much beef with the price of one maund of rice. Meanwhile, the “pillow” scandal at the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant has added a new dimension to this debate. How much is a pillow worth? As part of a bid to procure household goods for 330 Russian nationals taking up residence at the facility, pillows were purchased for Tk 5,957 each. Add to this, the moving cost of each pillow which was fixed at Tk 760. This means, each pillow for the residents of the 20-storied building cost the state a whooping Tk 6,717—which is nearly the price for 15 maunds of rice (each accounting for an average of Tk 450). The prices of some other goods were also abnormal. For example, the price of each bed sheet has been shown at Tk 5,986.
While expensive pillows are not unheard of, was it truly necessary? Was the money well-spent? Was the government justified in spending taxpayers’ money for luxury goods in a public project, when it is failing to pay a decent price to the hard-working farmers who feed the nation? What determines our priorities?
There have been, however, some arguments in favour of the procurement in question. One, given by a vaguely identified author in a column for an online news portal, sought to offer a lesson in public procurement, saying that the important thing in a quotation is not the accuracy of the price of individual items but their cumulative prices, which have to be in sync with the approved budget. This kind of argument suffers from a basic deficiency: it doesn’t prove that no corruption in the form of overpricing has taken place. Actually, the price of individual items in a quotation is very important. Overpricing aside, existing price lists influence the way a project budget is increased later, which is often the case in Bangladesh. For example, if it is decided in future that more pillows will be needed, this price list will provide the basis for future procurements, thereby justifying the extension of corrupt practices.
Coming back to the farmers, it’s surprising that the government, despite acknowledging a bumper harvest, has stuck to its decision to import rice from India. Although officially only the import of aromatic rice is being mentioned, the truth is, even rice of ordinary varieties is also being brought in from across the border. The price of rice on the domestic market has not come down, although the price of paddy has. Now the government has decided to export some rice but it is uncertain when that will happen.
Meanwhile, the poor farmers and all who depend on them will continue to suffer, like they always do on this land. No stars will shine for them. It’s a sad, depressing scene and it will remain so, unless we decide to do something about it.
Golam Mortoza is a journalist.
The article was translated from Bangla by Badiuzzaman Bay.