Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights

BANGLADESH: Hopes Pinned on Bumper Harvest

Farid Ahmed

DHAKA, Apr 23 2008 (IPS) - Maddened by poverty and hunger, Bablu, a day labourer in the northern Rajshahi district, killed his two infant daughters and then tried to commit suicide by taking poison, last week, according to police.

Food queues at subsidised rice outlet run by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles Credit: Farid Ahmed/IPS

Food queues at subsidised rice outlet run by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles Credit: Farid Ahmed/IPS

With the prices of rice, wheat, pulses and cooking oil having almost doubled over the past year, some 40 percent of Bangladesh’s 150 million people, who live on less than a dollar a day, are said to be affected.

But spiralling prices of rice, a staple, have left people in this ‘least developed country’ facing their worst shortages since the major famine of 1974, when the new country was struggling to find its feet after a debilitating civil war, three years earlier, that resulted in independence from Pakistan.

Many charge the military-backed interim government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, with failing to take timely action and stem rising food prices. Ahmed who took power in January last year, under a state of emergency, has set in motion steps to cleanse the country of corruption ahead of "free, fair and credible" elections to be held before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the economy has stagnated and thousands of poor and middle-class people can be seen standing in long queues daily in different parts of the country to buy subsidised, coarse rice. But even coarse varieties have became dearer by 24 percent over the last month and, over the last year, by 70 percent, according to a report by the state’s trading arm.

For fear of food riots breaking out, many of the subsidised rice outlets are manned or guarded by armed paramilitary troops.

"I cannot recall such a spiral in rice prices in recent years," said Shahabuddin Ahmed, a primary school teacher, who was buying rice at a shop run by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles at Azimpur in the capital last week.

"I had to spend half of the day to buy five kg of rice… I had to remain absent from the school and if I have to come often like this I may lose my job," Ahmed told IPS.

The country&#39s military chief, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, has urged people to change food habits and eat potatoes along with their rice every day. Ahmed said eight million tonnes of potato were produced this year while the country only has preservation capacity for two million tonnes.

The present crisis, a result of devastating floods and a cyclone last year was compounded by global price hikes. This, food and disaster management minister A.M.M. Shawkat Ali said, has created a "hidden hunger" in the country.

Economists, however, say the situation has been worsened by the interim government’s zealous anti-corruption drive and "unwise" interference in the market by security forces.

The government has increased its food relief through free food distribution, food- for- work programmes and subsidised food sales through its open-market outlets to tackle the situation, but the price of rice has risen to a point where households are estimated to be spending 70 percent of their meagre incomes on food.

Poor families in Bangladesh spend about half of their daily income on buying two kg of rice, the World Bank chief Robert Zoellick told the media in Washington last week. "In the U.S. and Europe, many were worried about filling their gas tanks of cars, while many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs," he was widely quoted as saying.

Matia Chowdhury, agriculture minister in the cabinet of the now detained ex-prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, blamed poor planning by the government for the current rice crisis. She said the government had failed to import sufficient quantities of rice in time.

"There is much publicity, but no meaningful distribution of rice as needed by the people," she told IPS. Chowdhury herself stood in a queue for hours at a government-run subsidised shop earlier this month but returned empty handed along with a hundred odd people as the stocks ran out.

The government hopes that a bumper harvest of rice crop in the ‘boro’ season by the end of April will ease the situation. Boro is one of the three rice crops in Bangladesh, producing around 60 percent of the annual yield, the other two crops being &#39Aus&#39 and &#39Aman&#39.

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reports that the food grain yield from July 2006 to June 2007 was 28.44 million metric tonnes, including 26.85 million metric tonnes of rice, 737,000 metric tonnes of wheat and 850,000 metric tonnes of maize.

A senior economist, Mahabub Hossain, executive director of Bangaldesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), the country’s largest non-governmental organisation (NGO), told IPS that the government needed to strengthen its subsidised food distribution system to stabilise rice prices and shield vulnerable low-income groups from food market volatility.

Hossain said while there would be no shortage of food if a good yield of boro rice is harvested over the next three months, the extremely poor would continue to suffer due to higher prices.

"Now, it&#39s the responsibility of the government to procure rice from the farmers and sell it to the poor at a subsidised rate and government also needs to expand its safety-net for the poor," said Hossain.

According to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh, rice prices increased by 63 percent, pulses 66 percent, flour 78 percent and cooking oils 107 percent over the last one year.

"I have stopped sending money to my parents for three months. I cannot buy any medicine for my ailing wife nor can I afford any fruit for my small children," said a government employee at the Bangladesh Secretariat in Dhaka.

He draws around 6,000 taka (90 US dollars) a month to support a five-member family in the capital and the whole amount is now exhausted within 7 to 10 days. "My expenses for basic food have doubled, so I have to cut on other expenditures just to survive,’’ the 40-year-old staffer at the health ministry said.

Economist Zaid Bakht said that low income people were the worst sufferers from the market volatility.

"People in this group always spend a lion&#39s share of their incomes on food. So if the food prices increase rampantly, they will be forced to cut down on non-food items," said Bakht, a research director at the Bangladesh institute of Development Studies.

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