Shrinkflation: Downsizing in the time of inflation
One live poultry market in the capital has decided to sell pieces of chicken for those who cannot afford to buy an entire bird. This is not unusual: all supermarkets serve chicken cuts. However, the ones who cannot afford to buy a whole bird would probably not go to fancy supermarkets. Rather, they would get a portion directly from the poultry sellers. The price of one quarter of a small broiler chicken would come down to Tk 55-60. This will at least give them a fowl taste of a market that is fast spinning out of control.
We have heard of getting a share in the sacrifice of a cow. Getting a share of a bird or a fish is becoming popular as people are forced to downsize their monthly budgets. Our reputation as big eaters has taken a hit as we adjust to the recent price hikes. People have to "shrink" their food choices amid the inflation.
The other day, I was getting some confectionary items when a policeman walked in. He asked for the price of a sandwich; when told, he pondered for a while before leaving. I wanted to offer him the sandwich, but I realised it would be inappropriate for me to assume that he could not afford it. I did not want to offend him. But the thought left me disturbed. My middle-class sentiment did not let me reach out.
The provision for buying food in portions is meant for saving blushes. It is a face-saver euphemism like a "doggy bag" when diners request a box for the leftover food pretending that they would take it for their pets. Pretension is the hallmark of our middle class. They cannot queue up for subsidised food in an open market, yet they cannot afford to buy their essentials from the stores.
Inflation has hit hard. For ordinary people, the war in Ukraine or the tension in Taiwan is a distant event. For them, surviving every day has become a battle. The hike is everywhere: the prices of essentials, the bills for utilities, the costs of transportation and accommodation. The commodities are having a field day, while the value of humans is going down. Even the proverbial Bangalee resistance, found in the idiomatic expression "While the heart bleeds, lips remain sealed," is beginning to fall apart at the seam. The lopsided growth is not helping the cause either. The haves are having a buffet, and the have-nots are at the mercy of the market.
The month of Ramadan is unlikely to bring any relief as this month of fasting is also known for its traditional lavish breakfasts. As devotees overcompensate for their abstention through their overindulgence during evening and morning meals, the market manipulators take full advantage of the seasonal food cravings. So while one group is planning furious feasts while they fast, another group is fast becoming furious.
With the IMF on board, food subsidies are off the table. So how do we address the silent famine that is looming large? In Karachi, where they are facing a severe food shortage and where eating chicken is becoming a luxury, the upper echelon of society had the obscenity to hold a food fest in January. The "Karachi Eat" festival was gate-crashed; the attendees had to flee as ordinary men stormed the scene. No one wants a situation where a group flashes their opulence and where another group has to hide in shame. That is precisely what is happening in Bangladesh.
The state-level call for austerity is often ignored. Even the makers of rules are guilty of being the breakers. No one needs to know how many dishes were served at a party when people are starving. Yet, the media is never short of such images.
Inflation has hit hard. For ordinary people, the war in Ukraine or the tension in Taiwan is a distant event. For them, surviving every day has become a battle. The hike is everywhere: the prices of essentials, the bills for utilities, the costs of transportation and accommodation. The commodities are having a field day, while the value of humans is going down. Even the proverbial Bangalee resistance, found in the idiomatic expression "While the heart bleeds, lips remain sealed," is beginning to fall apart at the seam.
Did it occur to you that there is an extreme level of overindulgence all around? All the wedding parties now look the same. People go beyond their means to entertain. During the wedding season, nearly all the streets adjacent to my house remained covered under canopies of light. Some all-lit-up buildings here and there showed the sponsors who footed the bills for the lights. Then again, when we hear about our leaking reserve for the crude oil and liquefied natural gas needed to produce electricity, we realise how ambivalent the new-rich class has become to the misery of the middle and lower-middle class. They have no remorse for their exploitations. The signs are unhealthy, and nothing good will come out of this lack of mutual empathy.
Weeks before the holy month of Ramadan, one can only hope that there would be attempts to keep our greed in check. The hoarders who are planning to profit at the expense of ordinary consumers must be brought to book. The punters who are planning to make extra money keeping the ordinary people as hostages must be brought under control. Monitoring is the key. And those who will monitor also need to set a high ethical standard for themselves.
At the same time, innovative strategies need to be taken to lift the pressure from consumers with limited means. Anonymous charity rations can be introduced by stores for those who cannot afford essentials. Some of the initiatives during the pandemic can be reintroduced to help people who are struggling to make ends meet.
This is not the right time for pretension. Shrinkflation is here. The doggy bags are not for pets. They are for humans who cannot be downsized.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University.