Living like the poor, paying like the rich
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of abstinence. Instead, it may be one of obstinance this year, and not in a good way. That's according to an assessment of food prices that continue to soar higher thanks to what economists now call "greedflation", with food corporations stubbornly raising prices by taking advantage of the inflation, which has risen again after five consecutive months of relative decline. According to data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), headline inflation rose to 8.78 percent in February, up from 8.57 percent in January. And much of it is down to higher food inflation. For example, prices of 26 of the 47 food items assessed by the BBS have seen continued increase.
If the current trend holds, prices will remain high even during Ramadan, despite stern warnings from the prime minister as well as assurances of "sufficient" food supplies. And why not? If you were a trader, particularly one of those importers/corporations/millers controlling the supply chain, why would you not exploit the inflation when it is okayed as "not uncomfortable or excessive" by the state minister of planning himself? Why would you abstain from profiteering for a month when your obstinance can bring rich dividends on a daily basis? If the state doesn't care about public suffering, why would you?
One of those food items now on the radar is broiler chicken, which on Thursday was sold for Tk 270 per kg in Dhaka, up from Tk 160 just a month and a half ago. This is twice as much as the cost of its production which averages about Tk 130-140. Let that sink in for a moment. As per an analysis by Prothom Alo, large firms/corporations are to blame for the exorbitant price caused, among other reasons, by artificial crisis and supply-chain manipulation. As a result, not only are the poor being deprived of their right to protein food, but ordinary entrepreneurs in the poultry sector are also being cornered or driven out of business. What we are witnessing is astonishing corporate greed on a historic level, and the total collapse of any market regulation of the state.
The question is, why are consumers being forced to buy locally produced food at such high prices? Why are field-level growers, farmers and workers so poorly compensated? The handful of items that were once considered the "poor man's protein", including chicken, eggs, pangas and tilapia fish, are no longer accessible to the poor. In Ramadan, they will no longer abstain from food simply because they want to, but also because it will make good financial sense.
The handful of items that were once considered the "poor man's protein", including chicken, eggs, pangas and tilapia fish, are no longer accessible to the poor. In Ramadan, they will no longer abstain from food simply because they want to, but also because it will make good financial sense.
Just imagine: Between March 9, 2022 and March 9, 2023, the price of beef has increased by about 16 percent, according to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB). During the same period, the price of mutton rose by about 17 percent, and the price of broiler chicken by a staggering 55 percent. Prices of different types of fish have increased by at least 15 percent. The problem is, while prices of essential food items have increased manifold, real income for most people has remained the same as before.
"Sufficient" food supplies, therefore, mean nothing if people can't afford it. It means nothing if the money that used to fill a shopping bag before now fills only half of it, leading many to resort to what a commentator wryly termed "shrinkflation", or "shrinking" their food choices. Inflation followed by greedflation followed by shrinkflation – is there no way out of this trap?
Of course, for the general public, inflation statistics are nothing but meaningless claptrap, just as those rosy figures about GDP growth and per capita income peddled by politicians. Inflation goes up and down but somehow prices seem to be rigged to always go upward. Why is that? If you ask the government, it will try to deflect you by either playing down the problem, citing examples of countries where inflation is higher, or reminding you of its OMS and other social protection schemes to help the poor. But that doesn't answer the question about price increase. The fact is, welfare initiatives cannot be the mainstay of the state's response to poverty. Nor is its definition of the poor inclusive of all families currently in need of support. As we know from experience, there is a vast group of silently-suffering middle-class families who are just as vulnerable to economic shocks. Living like the poor but paying like the rich – is this going to be their fate from now on?
Sadly, the government's response to the high inflationary pressure that followed the Russia-Ukraine war a year ago, or the economic pain that preceded it thanks to the pandemic, has left a lot to be desired. True, the economic fallout of the war has been massive and wide-ranging. But it cannot be used as a crutch when there is so much suffering. What makes this worse is the fact that so much of the fallout is the government's own making, through its poor governance and failure to check corruption. There is a surplus of rules but a deficit of executions. How will the government justify it? Where's the initiative to ensure proper market monitoring and interventions? Where's the urgency to raise people's income level?
This must change. The government must address our cost-of-living crisis, but it must also address our cost-of-profiteering crisis, which is at the heart of the chaos and lawlessness prevailing in the consumer market. It cannot address one without addressing the other. It cannot help the poor without dismantling the influence of dishonest profiteers and their political backers. Instead of frequently raising gas, water and electricity bills in the name of global economic uncertainties, and thereby raising the prices of nearly everything, the government should find a way to be not so vulnerable to such uncertainties in the first place.
With Ramadan just days away, it is not enough to say that there will be no increase in food prices during this month when the prices are already insanely high. We need concrete actions, rather than empty rhetoric, to bring them within the purchasing ability of the poor. The time has come to stop giving excuses and start delivering results.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.