A report titled “World Food Security and Nutrition Situation-2017”, brought out jointly by a number of UN organisations, estimates that some 25 million Bangladeshis, mostly women and children, suffer from malnutrition. This is not to say that the overall food and nutrition situation here has not improved over the years. In fact, it is quite the contrary, as evident from the fact that Bangladesh has witnessed stunted growth among children (aged under 5) go down from 45 percent to 36.1 percent between 2005 and 2016.
Despite the progress, natural calamities like floods and landslides are having a disastrous effect on the nutrition situation, which is likely to be more severe this time around, considering the extent of damage caused by floods this year. According to the state-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB), coarse varieties of rice were on sale for Tk 50-54 per kg in the capital's retail markets last week—Tk 10 higher than the price only a month ago.
With rice prices soaring across the country in recent months, following widespread fears of rice shortages fuelled largely by the fact that massive amounts of agricultural losses were endured, the government has rightly started to intervene in the market recently by selling the staple at a subsidised price under a nationwide Open Market Sale (OMS) programme. Although, only after wrongly delaying from intervening.
Food Ministry sources, meanwhile, said that the intervention was not possible earlier because of the shortage of rice in public granaries, while also blaming a section of rice millers for deliberately hoarding rice and hiking prices. The Anti-Corruption Commission too has “received the allegation” that traders were hoarding rice in cahoots with “some government officials”, which it has said it will “inquire into”.
Consequently, their attempts to defraud the public also allegedly included dissemination of a confusing letter that said that India had stopped exporting rice to Bangladesh, which was later cleared to have been fake by the government. When seen from a broader perspective, this allegation is much more serious than it initially seems. At a time when the nation had barely recovered from one massive disaster (floods) and was struggling to deal with another crisis (the Rohingya influx), that special-interest groups will attempt to destabilise the rice market—endangering the national interest—for a quick buck should not be taken lightly.
Thus, the government should carefully investigate the matter and transparently deal with its findings. However, what none of this can excuse is the government's own failure to pre-empt a situation in which it would significantly have to intervene in the market in order to stabilise the price of a commodity as essential as rice.
One further indicator of this is the shelving of the government's rice distribution programme to the ultra-poor which it had drummed up for quite some time. The government suddenly postponed the plan as it would require 4.5 lakh tonnes of food-grains, while to operate the OMS programme beyond the district-level for a month, it would also need 50,000 to 100,000 tonnes of rice; whereas, the public food stock had 3.45 lakh tonnes of rice only and 1.21 lakh tonnes were still in the import pipeline, information from food ministry officials revealed.
This and other similar failures have prompted even rice traders to allege that “the food ministry didn't pay any attention to a fast depleting government food stock, and [had] responded late to the urgency of replenishing the rice reserve after the Haor deluge.” And to blame the government for “the delay in reducing the high import duty on rice” and for refusing “to give better price for homegrown rice”, only to procure the staple later “from abroad at much higher prices” (Govt wasn't alert to depleting stock, September 20, The Daily Star).
One leading private rice importer said that had the government reduced duty on rice imports “right after the flash flood-induced crop loss, a situation like this would not have arisen in the first place.” And so, this is the crux of the current crisis. While it is understandable that the government has had to deal with a number of crises all at the same time, what is inexcusable is the food ministry's failure to perform its primary and specific duty. This too demands a proper investigation as much as the circulation of the fake letter does.
And, finally, there is the matter of what has been happening since then which, bar none, deserves the greatest and most urgent attention; particularly given that it is still rectifiable. And, that is, corruption in the OMS programme, including in its sale and distribution.
One incident of this was recorded in Rajshahi's Durgapur upazila on September 20, where three dealers were alleged to have falsely shown on paper the sale of rice at the subsidised OMS rate. “Taking advantage of lax monitoring by food officials,” the dealers were alleged to have sold three tonnes of rice—the total allocation of OMS for the day—on the black market (one can only assume at a higher price for personal profit) in complete disregard for the plight of ordinary citizens and the intent of the initiative (Dealers go rogue with OMS rice, September 22, The Daily Star).
One of the monitoring officials had even admitted signing the document confirming the sale, under pressure from someone named Rustom, who also happens to have the “blessings of local leaders of the ruling party”. No doubt, there are many more cases of similar corrupt practices happening regularly that are going completely unreported.
Given the settings, while it is perhaps illogical to ask the government to address each and every case of such corruption individually, what it can do is take exemplary measures against the corrupt in cases that are brought to its notice—particularly when its own party men are involved—to show that no one should feel emboldened enough to chance their luck. Also, assigning responsible and non-partisan monitoring officials at the points of sale is as paramount as properly informing the public about where and how they can easily obtain OMS rice—that has been dismally lacking so far.
It has been a difficult year for the government with so much going on, but an even tougher one for those who have lost everything and now have nothing going for them. In some of the cases, the government did well and meant well, but in others, it made a hash of things. In some of the instances it was a handful of individuals at fault, but in others, the government's lack of action that allowed it.
Right now, those who have nothing going for them cannot afford to have the government make a hash of things any longer, nor its lack of action to alleviate their sufferings.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.