More to get Less
kitchen markets seem to be forever in the grips of the
price monster. Come Ramzan this fiend takes on huge
proportions, shooting up the prices of essential food
items and making the lives of ordinary people more miserable.
But does this phenomenon of price spiral of essentials
inevitable? If yes, why? If not, who is responsible?
Hossain and his four-year-old daughter Parul hold up
their hands together to say doa as the Magrib Azan wafts
into their 10ft by 8ft room. The mother hurriedly enters
the room with a bottle of cold water. They sit on the
bed forming a circle with a medium sized bowl in the
middle for iftar. The menu can't be simpler -- a mixture
of some pyaju, boot and muri. A few pieces of khejur
(dates) on a separate plate are clearly the special
attraction of today's iftar.
has been hankering for dates for the last two days,”
Tofazzal says shyly. A security guard of a fivestoried
building in Gopibagh, with a monthly salary of Tk 3,500,Tofazzal
cannot afford to buy even 250 gm of dates everyday.
don't make iftar at home, it's too expensive,”says Tofazzal's
wife Momotaz who works in 3 houses as a chuta bua.“
How could we when 1 kg of soybean oil sells at Tk. 52.
Iftar is not for the likes of us,” Tofazzal adds. Tofazzal
is not alone in thinking this way. With the wild spiraling
of prices of almost all essential food items during
the Ramadan, breaking the fast with a variety of tasty
tidbits or a wholesome meal, is a far cry.
and price hikes of the essentials have become synonymous.
The only difference this year is that the prices are
increasing at a faster rate and started to spiral much
earlier than usual. Ramadan was still three weeks away
when suddenly the prices started to rocket in the kitchen
market with a record high in the price of onion. Onions
being an integral part of Bangladeshi cooking and regarded
as an 'essential', are a good indicator of what's happening
in the market.
the price of onion ranges between Tk 8 and 15 per kg,
depending on the season. But from the second week of
October, the price of onion shot to Tk 32 per kg. Very
soon prices of other food items followed suit. In the
last 2 weeks preceding the Ramadan prices of lentils,
oil, dry chilly, ginger, garlic, meat, powder milk,
vegetables and boot (gram) have increased by Tk 4 to
Tk 25 per kg. As the Ramadan was approaching, prices
of the traditional iftar items also showed marked rise.
Prices of khorma (dry date) rose from Tk 100 to 120,
dates from Tk 38 to Tk 40, muri from Tk 26 to Tk 28
dabli motor (chickpeas) from Tk 18 to 20, baisan from
20 to 24. Beside, prices of each kg of gram increased
Tk 6 to 8 and of chira by Tk 2 to Tk 4. The list doesn't
end here. Prices of vegetables and fruits have also
been souring and out of the reach of the low income
group people, who with their fixed income are being
forced to cut off or lessen the different essential
food items from their daily menu. Zamila Begum, a widow
who lives with her daughter and her son-in-law and works
as a domestic maid, says that she hasn't had fish for
months and even vegetables are too pricey. Her family
eats iftar together, a meal of just rice and lentils.
people are not interested in the pros and cons of the
tricky question of why prices are soaring this way.
The easiest answer by condemning the government. “It
is the government's responsibility to keep prices of
essentials in check, but they are busy fattening their
coffer,” Rasheduddin, a security guard working for Group
4, says bitterly. He reveals that his monthly food charge
in the mess, where he lives with two of his co-workers,
has already surpassed the usual Tk 800 per month though
there are still 5 or 6 days to go. Saiful Islam, a second
class employee in the main branch of Bangladesh Krishi
Bank, also refuses to analyse who the real culprit is
and to what degree others have contributed to this unbearable
market condition. “I don't care who are responsible.
I just want to see an end to it,” he says impatiently.
“Now, as potato is selling at Tk 14 a kg even rice and
alu bharta seem to be going beyond the reach of people
like us,” Islam says. “It has been almost a month since
prices have been increasing rapidly, but the government
hasn't done anything at all. Why doesn't it take actions
against those who are creating such situations?” says
Biplob, another shopper at the vegetables market in
Gopibagh. When it comes to finding why prices are increasingly
this way or who is/are responsible for it there are
various theories. Some reports in various newspapers
point to the big gap between wholesale and retail prices
and in doing so hold the retailers largely responsible
for price hike. But it may not be as simple as that.
Mollah, a stout middle-aged, retail seller of onion,
garlic, ginger, dry chilly and lentils at Gopibagh bazaar
intently looks at his daily accounts. When he is asked
the question the entire nation is asking he grows a
bit glum: “Bhai, it is very easy to accuse the poor
sellers like us. But I cannot sell things at lesser
prices than I have bought at.” Mollah gives examples.
“The wholesale price of the Indian onions is Tk 20 to
Tk 22 depending on qualities at Shambazaar. Add to that
the transport cost, the rent of this is Tk 1500 a month
and also the sizable amount we lose as onions rot very
quickly. Now tell me if I am asking too much,” he demands.
On 30th October he was selling Indian onions at Tk 26/27.
the biggest wholesale market for spices, vegetables
and fish, stands along with the Buriganga. Inside the
scores of quite large shops known as aarat sacks filled
with onions, garlic, ginger are stacked neatly. The
long rows of trucks standing almost in the middle of
the road are being unloaded. The large sacks are then
weighed in the giant scale under the close scrutiny
of the aarat manager.
of the labourers from all around mixing with the roaring
from the tired engines of the trucks create the soundscape
of Shambazaar, noisy but characteristic of the place.
sellers do not usually buy from the aarat. There are
wholesale shops a little further down the road who buy
goods in sacks and then sell them to the retailers in
pallas. Each palla is equivalent to 5kg. Enamul Mia,
one of the wholesale businessmen, is seen spreading
out onions across his tiny 4ft by 6ft place. Onions
tend to rot in the damp weather, he says. When he is
asked about their role in pushing up the price of onions
and other things Enamul doesn't protest. Instead he
explains how things happen in the wholesale business:
“My selling price is higher by Tk 1 per palla from my
buying price. Besides there is no scope to lie about
my buying price because buyers (that is the retailers)
come to us after checking with the aaratdar.” The aaratdar
in his turn does business on commission. In the case
of spices an aaratdar gets 30 paisa per every kg sold.
“So it is of no consequence if we sell something at
Tk 20 or Tk 50 per kg,” Khairuzzaman, an aaratdar in
Shambazaar, says. When asked about the allegation labelled
against them that they stock up goods to create crisis
he protests : “ We can sell things at whatever prices
we want. We cannot sell it except at the price fixed
by the importer who is owner of the goods.” One widely
believed theory regarding the suspicious price hikes
has been that of goods being stocked for longer periods
to create an artificial crisis. Majed Mia, an importer
who also owns Raj Traders, an Aarat, in Shambazaar,
scoffs at such an idea. “If I keep onions for more than
3 to 4 days they will start rotting” he says after pointing
to the stacked onions. Besides the earlier I sell the
better price I will get, he adds. Then why did the price
of onions shoot up to Tk 32 per kg? “Because the supply
was much lower than the demand,” he reasons. Normally
it takes 5 to 6 days to get things from Kolkata to Dhaka.
But sometimes rush in the borders or delay in custom
formalities take up extra time.” Other factors are at
work too. “Often we cannot sell onions or garlic of
the same shipment (chalan) at the same price; by the
time we receive them, a large amount has lost its original
we closely examine the ways retail or wholesale business
works it is clear that they simply don't have much control
of the market. It is only the importers who have the
means and scope to manipulate the market. Because it
is the importers who set the price in the first place.
Sometimes before they finish a particular chalan prices
go up in the country from where the goods were imported.
They immediately raise the price though they are actually
selling from the same chalan. Sometimes they intentionally
make delays in placing orders or keep stocks for longer
periods than they should to create an artificial crisis.
“Sometimes they exploit their own created crisis to
force the government to withdraw taxes on imported goods
to multiply their profit,” he explains. Maleque alludes
to a 'plot' of the edible oil importers who are lobbying
with the government so that it lifts taxes despite the
fact that they already have millions of tonnes in their
stocks that were bought at Tk 39 to Tk 41 with the L/C
opened in July-August.
forming trade associations like onion importers' association
or dal importers' association, these importers cum businessmen
have established such absolute control over the market
that the government play hostage in their hands.,” points
out Emdad Hossain Maleque, Programme Officer, Research
and Information Cell, Consumers' Association of Bangladesh
it is the wrong policy of the government that has given
these greedy dishonest businessmen the scope to exploit
the situation to their advantage,” he adds. In the name
of free market economy the government (who is not supposed
to either intervene or influence the market) has made
people dependent, for many of the essential food items,
on the business people.
a section of businessmen are behind the price spiral
the government is guilty of letting them go unchallenged.
Inspite of the continuous media uproar Commerce Minister
Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury chose to ignore the whole
issue uttering what seems to be his dearest doctrine
: “ In a free market economy prices are determined by
the market force, the Government cannot control it.”
He however had to eat his words when the Government
cut down 29% tariff on onions to 7%. Why didn't the
government do this earlier? Don't they know there are
price hikes during every Ramadan?” Mizanur Rahman, a
doctor working at the Monowara Hospital, wonders.
reason the government couldn't act on time is because
it doesn't have any mechanism to monitor the market
and get up--to--date information about the demand and
supply of various items, day to day retail or wholesale
market price, market prices in the country from where
goods are being imported, transportation costs, approximate
time period for transport and other related issues,
so that it can work out a reasonable price policy and
then bargain with the business people, Maleque suggests.
Such information would give the Government the opportunity
to pre-judge the market condition and take measures
accordingly. The government moreover, must have a substitute
arrangement ready so that it can import during emergency
situations. The government can easily use the TCB (Trading
Corporation of Bangladesh) for this purpose.
is said about a 'free market economy,' the Government
cannot shrug off its responsibility and must do everything
necessary to bring back normalcy in the market. But
for that general people need to be aware of their rights
as consumers so that they can make the government perform
its duties in this regard.