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     Volume 7 Issue 19 | May 9, 2007 |

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Cover Story

A Price too High to Pay

It is often said that when we look back at the times we have lived through our memories are what we want them to be. The reason is that the past always seems like a better, friendlier place, where children respected their elders, politicians were honest and prices were reasonable. If that is true, then how will these times be remembered in a generation from now? Will we remember a friendlier, better Bangladesh where politicians were honest and prices were low? One feels our memories will not be so cheerful, as we are living through the toughest times of our lives, where even a reasonable salary is not enough to provide for a family. Those who don't even have a steady salary may not remember it at all, they may not even be around to remember it.

Nader Rahman
Photos: zahedul i. khan

Why? It seems a reasonable question, only to those who don't have their head buried in the sand. With prices rising and incomes remaining relatively the same the people of Bangladesh are in dire straits. They will not look back at these times fondly; some may not even look back at all and some may have perished as a result of the economic downturn the nation is currently going through. The simple answer may be that food prices have spiralled beyond control and that now every income group is struggling to feed its self. But the question still remains, why has this happened? How has it happened, and what can be done? The answer lies partly in the fact that while prices rises were almost inevitable the income levels of average Bangladeshis have not risen as well. With the same salaries people are being forced to buy food and necessities at astronomical prices, thereby crippling every other aspect of life.

People queuing up to buy food from the fair price shops

Nurul Islam a 48-year-old day labourer is one of the millions of people who has to survive without a fixed income. He says, “Firstly I do not get work that often, if I am lucky once a week and that is simply Tk 150 a day. How can I feed myself, my wife and two children on Tk 150 a week? With the price of food the way it is that's how much I end up spending a day let alone a week! Where will my rent come from? Where will every other expense in my life come from? At least before there were more construction projects around the city and I would be employed most of the week, these days there isn't even that option”. Islam's story is simply one a million, more like one in a few million because there are people toiling all over the country now working on a daily basis trying to feed themselves and their dependants, but with the current state of the economy no where near enough jobs are being created, that coupled with rising prices in every sphere has hit Bangladesh hard.

Dr Wahiduddin Mahmud

Noted economist Wahiduddin Mahmud sets the problems faced by Bangladesh in a more global perspective when he says, “Realistically if you look at the situation around the world it is quite easy to comprehend that the era of cheap food is over, internationally and in Bangladesh.” His comments may seem provocative but if one were really to have a look at the situation of world food right now there would be no other answer. It has even come to the point when the World Health Organisation has openly stated that prices will continue to rise beyond 2010. That does not mean they will stay at today's astronomical levels, but will continue to rise. That will be a problem the world will have to face, with global demand increasing and stuttering supply we could find ourselves in the very real situation of bidding for food, finding the highest bidder and only then receiving food. There have already been food riots around the world from Haiti to Egypt and they are telling signs of what may occur in Bangladesh in the near future. This is even harder to believe for Bangladesh which is primarily an agriculture based economy.

Dr. Anu Mohammad of Jahangirnagar University looks beyond the global phenomena of rising food prices and claims that things are not as bleak as one might imagine for Bangladesh. Mohammad says, “the fact of the matter is that the current rise in food prices affects us quite simply because we have to buy grain and other food products from abroad. That is easy enough to understand. But what is not commonly known is that we produce nearly enough grain to feed our own country and everything above that we need to export and that is where the problem lies.” What people don't see is that the farmers of Bangladesh produce nearly enough rice to feed the population of 150 million, it is just what we need at the end to balance the scales of our food requirements that causes the greatest problems and affects the price the most. If that gap could be bridged then we would not be reliant on grain from outside Bangladesh. That would give us an unparalleled level of self-determination, therefore what needs to be looked into then is how we can increase our own grain production and not have to buy at the staggering world rates.

It may seem like a foolish dream but is more than possible says Mahmud. “Some time ago I went to the government and suggested that they set up two task forces in order to draw upon the available expertise both within and outside the government, to help with easing the burden of these outrageous costs” says Mahmud. He states his case by saying, “I talked of two policy areas and rightfully the first should deal with food security and food management policies. That would cover topics such as food import, food stocks and public food distribution.” If as Dr Mahmud says a taskforce could be set up, then this spiralling problem could be dealt with, instead of hampering the lives of millions of people around the country.

Milk has become an expendable commodity; with prices rising
abruptly more and more people view it as something of a luxury

His second suggestion goes further to the root of the problem, “what they (the government) should also look into is agricultural production support. That should cover procurement and distribution of agricultural input, investment in dissemination of research and crop technology,” he says. There is a saying that one hand feeds the other and his two suggestions could be said to be doing the same, only in a positive manner. Agricultural production support is first and foremost a job creator and sustainer, which is exactly what the millions of farmers of this country need. The effect they may have is easy to understand. Currently farmers are just as starved and poor as the rest of the country which is a pathetic thought because they are the people who provide us with the food we eat. Without them the prices we would have to pay for food would even be well beyond what we are paying now, they are the unheralded heroes of this price hike we are all living though, they are the very people who manage to keep prices within touching distance of what is affordable. With the proper production support farmers should be able to grow their crops in a more organised and orderly manner. They should earn more from their produce and at least they should be able to live with affordable food prices along with a decent stable income. But that may all be just a bridge too far.

When it comes back down to prices and income the complaints remain the same. The farmers have it even worse than the salaried workers, their income is anything but stable and most of the time they get cheated by the middlemen who hike up prices of their produce to such an extent that they become unaffordable in the cities. Aside from just food prices a common complaint seems to be why wages have not risen with the prices so that the average person could at least cope. Anu Mohammad has an interesting take on that issue: “There are many economists who would say incomes have risen along with prices. What they are saying is not necessarily wrong but it's not right either,” he goes on to say, “all the figures relating to Bangladesh seem to be

Children could turn out to be the long-term victims of these continued price hikes

pointing in the right direction. Grosse Domestic Product (GDP) and the per capita income has been rising yet still for roughly 90% of the population their real income is decreasing, how is that possible one may ask?”

"For the top 5 to 10% of the population", he continues "their incomes have gone up so much that it has begun to affect the overall statistics of the nation.” For some, wealth has been acquired at such an alarming rate and at such enormous levels that seemingly a handful of individuals have sent this country's GDP soaring upwards. It boggles the mind to think that only a few people could shift the aggregate demand curve of a nation. Their incomes have improved so alarmingly that if one divides the increase in income of the top 10% by the remaining 90% then nationally the figures would say the average persons incomes has increased! Seemingly while the rich get substantially richer the figures seem to show how everyone has benefited, even if that is not the case. There is a saying that there are lies, damned lies and then statistics. To fully understand the situation one needs to look at Saudia Arabia. There the GDP is constantly on an upward shift and per capita incomes are alarmingly high, but that is not a clear indication of how the entire population lives. The reason is that the rich are so rich there that their earnings greatly affect the GDP and per capita incomes. There may be 50 billionaires whose incomes are so great that when it is divided by the rest of the nation it seems as if everyone's incomes are rising or are that artificially high.

Dr Anu Mohammad

Seemingly the same has occurred in Bangladesh just that every other class of people other than the rich has to live with the false effects of those figures. Shoily Rahman a middle class housewife and mother of three talks of how the spiralling prices have affected her family. She says, “not too long ago, my husband's salary was enough to keep us afloat, as most people do we wished for more money but we were also content with what he got. We could easily feed our three children and there was even a time when we went on the occasional holiday. We have left those days far behind us, now with the same salary we are struggling to make ends meet. To be truthful it is very difficult to feed the entire family and it has come to the point when I don't even want guests over as that will entail more food. Our holidays are a thing of the past and now my children's school fees take up a good chunk of our income.” Her story is echoed by many around the city especially by those who have to run households on even less money than her.

Aakash a 29 year-old driver for a family in Eskaton says, “it is impossible to survive with the salary I am being paid and yet this was what I thought would be enough for me. I get paid Tk 5000 a month and every single month I have to borrow money to stay afloat. To save some money I have even pulled my daughter out of school, there was no way I could continue to afford that along with the cost of her books and clothes.” The problems we are faced with today could lead to further complications down the line. Already every income group is cutting down on what they deem excesses but what at times is essential for children to lead a healthy life. Milk, not even in the list of essentials for the poor for a long time now, has become a luxury for lower income households. If this continues there could be a whole new generation of calcium deficient Bangladeshi children.

The poor are the people who have to suffer the most, feeding themselves has become a challenge in its self and they feel there is no hope in sight

Kazi Mia another day labourer says, “the situation now is like that of the famine in the seventies, those were terrible times and I remember what it was like to be hungry then. The only difference now is that food is available but I simply cannot afford it. I can see it right in front of me, but I can't buy it, in a way it's worse than the famine.” He went on to say, “the daily wage of day labourers has not increased in a long time and I doubt if it will. If I am not willing to work for Tk150 a day as I did 10 years back then there will be more than a thousand people waiting behind me for that job. We take what we can get, but with the cost of living the way it is we actually need over Tk 200 a day to survive,” on the verge of tears he says, “only Allah knows when this inequality will be dealt with.” Abdul Mannan yet another day labourer chimes in saying, “the situation is so bad that that we cannot do any one thing properly. We can't pay the rent fully or pay for our food fully, what do we do? Everyone says go back to the village, but nothing is waiting for us there either.” He makes a startling revelation:“I have not eaten any kind of meat in the last six weeks, with prices and my income the way it is it will be a long time before I eat meat again. Before I do that I need to pay a full month's rent and expenses.” He adds that he has heard of a few people even hunting down crows to eat them.

Shormi Khan a middle-income housewife is one of the many people who has felt the full pinch of the current cost of living. She says, “my husband's income always managed to get us through, somehow we always managed to scrape a living. His salary in Sonali Bank was enough for us, but now we have to shift houses, as we can no longer afford to live in Mirpur. We are going to shift to a two-bedroom apartment in Mohammadpur next month because there was no way we could pay the rent here. That causes more problems as now he will need more money on transport to and from work.” She claims house rents have not gone up even claiming they have fallen a little but that is not good enough if 70% of a family's income is simply spent in feeding itself. That is the situation she must live with now.

Grocery shopping is now all about the fine art of balancing a small income with high prices Most people view meat as a luxury and with the price of fish skyrocketing it an item many households feels they can do without

The sky-high prices of essentials has hit more than just the households. A hotelier from Cox's Bazaar preferring to be unnamed says, “with the way prices have been fewer people have the money to spend on vacations and hotels here have been suffering as a consequence. Some people came to me a few weeks ago and told me they could not pay the full room rent and yet I still took them, in times like these one needs to take any customer that comes one's way.” He has also had to lay off five members of his staff since the beginning of the year, as business has not been good enough to keep them on. The situation touches everyone, not the just the farmers and the housewives.

The real question now is, what can be considered a reasonable income that will fulfil the basic needs of the masses. Anu Mohammad says, “There was a time when Tk 8000 a month was something to look forward to, but now those people live on the very edge of the poverty line, most of them below it. People are being paid decent salaries and they are still poor, just imagine what the rest of the country has to go through!” He goes on to say that this is a cumulative crisis and that employment opportunities will only be created through expansion in new areas. Bangladesh's problems stem from being over import oriented as Mohammad adds, “import-export - everything has been reduced to this! This is the problem of business.” He also goes on to say, “For us to get out of this mess the (product-oriented) private sector must be increased, the current new liberal approach (which overemphasises on service sectors) is not the way forward.” Professor Mahmud says, “I believe the economy of Bangladesh has the strength and resilience to get through these tough times, but the time to act is now.” The way forward will not be easy, but it does not necessarily have to be too tough either. It will take a strong government to control food and energy for things to be set in motion, but even that may remain a pipe dream.

The unexpected doubling of CNG rates was something we could have done without

The problems with the cost of living today will come to light in a few years when Bangladesh has a few million under nourished and stunted children. Already those who could earlier afford it have stopped feeding their children milk or at least cutting the amount down, others have reduced the total amount of food, especially meat, altogether, which deprives children from essential nutrients for growth. With the way things are more and more of those malnourished children are being and will be forced to work from an early age, which would lead to more stunted children. The cost of living must be looked into today, not for those who have the luxury of spending Tk10 on this newspaper, but the 100 million others who are struggling to cope with the unbearable cost of living, which may cost them their lives.

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