March 29, 2023
DHAKA – Earlier this year, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi asked people not to panic-purchase Ramadan essentials or buy in excess, as there would be enough supply in the market and no change in prices. The minister’s thought, unfortunately, bears little resemblance to reality. The prices of Ramadan essentials, including lentils, sugar, brinjal and lemons, were on a soaring trajectory even before the month of fasting began, and the government failed to ensure fair prices for the common people.
Ironically, a paper by the commerce ministry, released last week, suggested that due to high prices, demand for Ramadan essentials might fall by 20 percent year-on-year. And why not? The price of sugar – a basic Ramadan necessity as people break their fast with a cooling glass of shorbot – has skyrocketed to Tk 115-120 per kg from last year’s Tk 78-80 per kg – an almost 50 percent hike. This certainly comes as a surprise because to tame it, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) removed import duty in February on both refined and raw sugar till May this year. Moreover, regulatory duty on sugar import was reduced to 25 percent from 30 percent. Despite this, sugar remains beyond the common people’s purchasing capacity, with the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) even suggesting a rise of Tk 5 per kg, despite the NBR initiatives. One cannot help but ask the obvious question: who are reaping the benefits of these tax waivers?
Among the Ramadan essentials that are beyond the purchase capacity of lower-income groups is animal protein as well. The price of broiler chicken has shot up to Tk 270-280 per kg in the kitchen markets, from Tk 170-175 per kg last year (although some have reported a sudden and sharp decline in its price). While the increased cost of poultry feed has been cited as a major cause, according to a March 19 report by the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP), production costs of broiler chicken should be between Tk 135 and Tk 160, depending on the size of the firm. So why such a high margin for broiler chicken in the kitchen markets?
A hali of eggs now costs Tk 45-47, compared to Tk 32-35 last year. Fish have also become pricier. Coarse rice prices have also risen by Tk 2-5 this year. One kilogram of lentil costs Tk 136 this year, up from Tk 115 last year. Given the current scenario, how are the low-income groups expected to survive this fresh onslaught of rising prices?
Now, everything can be blamed on the economic aftershocks of Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, but the reality is that what we are experiencing are not organic hikes. These are rather deliberate price manipulations – criminal activities that we are allowing to be carried out in broad daylight. And the three bodies that we have to ensure fair prices for consumers and protect their rights – Directorate General of Food, Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection, and the Department of Agriculture Marketing – are to be blamed for the additional burden on people.
It is high time the government and policymakers took this problem seriously and demonstrated a strong political will to enforce the laws on curbing price manipulations.
There are also an equal number of laws – Control of Essential Commodities Act, Consumers’ Right Protection Act, and Agricultural Marketing Act – to check unnatural price hikes and bring the criminal business syndicates and traders to justice. But these laws are not being enforced, which is giving a sense of security to the unscrupulous syndicates and traders.
These three bodies have no synergy among themselves. The best they can do is cite various problems to compensate for their incompetence or pass the blame on to others. Case in point: when the DG of DNCRP – the body that is responsible for monitoring if traders are charging extra for commodities – was asked about the high poultry price, he asked the correspondent to talk to the livestock department. How many doors must we knock to get answers to the questions we have every right to ask? If these three bodies are not able to work together, why do we even have them?
DAM claimed they had sought magistracy power, which was denied. Why cannot they work in sync with the other agencies to conduct drives to enforce laws? This cannot be a showstopper.
The food ministry secretary has been cited by this daily as saying that while his ministry monitors rice and wheat prices, the agricultural ministry keeps track of the prices of agricultural goods, while the commerce ministry looks after the prices of the rest of essentials. Why can’t there be a single body – perhaps a separate ministry – to protect consumer rights?
It is high time the government and policymakers took this problem seriously and demonstrated a strong political will to enforce the laws on curbing price manipulations. It is only natural and understandable that for those who are blessed with four meals a day, with adequate access to good quality protein and imported fruits and vegetables, the plight of the poor would seem a distant issue. But given that it is with the votes of these poor, limited-income groups that they have come to power, the government and policymakers owe it to them to ensure the basic three meals a day for them.
If the bureaucrats are not doing their jobs properly, they should be investigated to see if there are ulterior motives behind their reluctance (read: underhand dealings with market syndicates), and if proven guilty, they should be brought to book as well. Anyone who is found involved in this mess should be dealt with strictly.
In fact, this entire system should be overhauled and replaced with one empowered, efficient, and honest authority to weed out corruption and malpractices from the market. We have suffered for years already – the last three have been especially excruciating – and now people are teetering on the brink. Before greater consequences befall us, we must rein in the prices.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb