March 24, 2023
DHAKA – As we enter the holy month of Ramadan, there is a lingering concern writ large among ordinary consumers: will food prices continue to remain unstable and soar higher? To expect a dramatic change from how things were pre-Ramadan would be unwise, despite assurances of “sufficient food supplies” which are expected to bring stability in the market. While talking to The Daily Star, a number of people from the low-income group have shared their frustration. For example, one woman described how she bought 250-gram dressed chicken at a staggering Tk 110 for her family of five. “I will store the chicken in a neighbour’s fridge and cook it on the first day of Ramadan,” she said, adding that buying beef, fish, milk or fruits is “out of the question” for them.
This is the story of most low-income households caught between stagnant wages/income and ever-increasing prices of essential items. According to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, sugar was Tk 80 a kg just before Ramadan last year; now it’s Tk 115-120. The price of chickpeas rose from Tk 70 to Tk 85-90 a kg, and lentils from Tk 95-100 to Tk 135-140 a kg. The price of dates rose by 26 percent, eggs by 24.32 percent, broiler chicken by 62.5 percent and beef by 8.89 percent. How are the poor supposed to bear such expenses?
Unfortunately, there are at least three laws to check abnormal price hikes – namely, the Control of Essential Commodities Act-1956, Consumers’ Right Protection Act-2009, and Agricultural Marketing Act-2018 – and as many government bodies to enforce them – namely, the Directorate General of Food, the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection, and the Department of Agriculture Marketing. Apparently, the food ministry is working on amending the Control of Essential Commodities Act to incorporate a provision for capital punishment for hoarding. This marks a rather absurd turn of events at a time when it is evident that it is not lack of laws but their enforcement that is responsible for the total chaos in the market. Toughening up penalties, just like those periodic warnings/assurances issued by the government, minus visible results, are little more than ill-timed PR exercises that the public could do without right now.
While the effect of the Russia-Ukraine war is no doubt a big factor behind the high prices of essentials, the lack of market regulation is equally to blame for that, with corrupt traders taking advantage of the situation. It’s been like “a cat and mouse game” between the regulators and traders, as a former food secretary claimed. Drives are carried out when prices of essentials are artificially raised, she said, but those only bring temporary relief and the problem persists. However, those drives are rarely carried out or followed up on, and hence rarely been effective. The question is, how long will the government try to deflect attention away from its own failures?
As things stand, people’s suffering may continue during this Ramadan as well. We, therefore, urge the authorities to take strong action to prevent any market manipulation. Unscrupulous businessmen must be restrained and brought under the law.