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     Volume 6 Issue 23 | June 15, 2007 |

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Special Feature

Sky's the Limit

Hana Shams Ahmed

In a country where no one can say with certainty whether a person who goes out of the house will be able to ward off hijackers and reckless drivers to come back home safely, one thing that can be relied on is the prices of essentials. Despite highflying promises from all successive governments to keep prices within the reach of the middle and lower income groups, prices continued to escalate and a large section of the people, whose incomes never matched that rise, found their standard of living diminishing day by day.

People's expectations rose when the caretaker government promised to take stringent steps against hoarding by corrupt businessmen and more relaxed import policies to ease flow of produce from India. Prices of essentials showed little sign on easing. In fact, according to newspaper reports prices of most essential commodities increased by 4 per cent to 71 per cent in the first four months and a half after the caretaker government took over. Although in the latest budget many prices of essential items were promised to be brought down, it had little effect on the market. Households with limited income are the hardest hit. With no possibility of an income raise, families have to tighten their belts even more and often settle for smaller portions of many items on their dinner tables.

Many households have to buy lesser portions of essential items to live on their limited income

Syeda Kawser, a 50-year-old widow living in Mohammadpur with her three children. Although her husband passed away 10 years ago, his employer, who is a family friend, continued to give his salary. Of course, the salary remained the same, while prices continued to mount, as did the needs of the family. But Syeda, who also sells hand-painted and embroidered shalwar kamizes and sarees to supplement her income, says that her expenses have more than doubled in the last three months. "It's very difficult for us to keep up with the sudden rise," says Syeda, "essentials that we used to buy at 6/7 taka a few months ago, now cost 24/25 taka. Things like lady's finger and raw papaya have seen a very sharp rise."

Syeda says that before the caretaker government came to power her monthly expenses were covered within Tk 4000. Now for the same purchases she has to spend upto Tk 8000 to 9000 sometimes. "I

could buy things like oil, rice, pulse, flour etc within 1800-2000 taka in a month and my fish and meat expenses were limited to 3000 taka every month. All of it has doubled," complains Syeda, "I can't even forgo anything because these things are all essentials. Although they are saying that prices of many essentials have gone down, I really have not seen any sign of that at the markets."

According to Syeda the only thing that is less expensive from before is ginger, which had gone up to Tk 90 per kilogram, has gone down to Tk 35 and a certain grade of rice. "Unfortunately the type of rice that has gone down to about Tk 12 per kilogram is almost close to inedible," says Syeda. "Apparently food, even vegetables are being exported abroad which has naturally created this deficit in our country. The government really should take care of the local needs first and then think about exporting."

Price of meat and fish have gone beyond the reach of most middle-class families

Salma and Mustafa Ali, who both work at a bank, have also been hard hit by the price rise. "Both of our children study at an English medium school," says Salma, "the government has announced in this budget that they would impose tax on all English medium schools. Guess who will have to bear the brunt of this tax? The whole thing will be taken out on us, the parents. The schools will continue to make the same amount of profit as before." Mustafa says that the schools increase the monthly fees by a big margin every year anyway. This tax is just going to make things worse for the parents of school-going children.

Salma and Mustafa who live on a tight budget in their small apartment in Lalmatia say that because of the rising prices they have limited their purchase of meat and fish, which have seen the sharpest rise.

43-year-old Salam Talukder, a government employee, says that this price rise has forced her to take loans to maintain the balance. "While my expenditure has increased, my income is still the same," says Salam, "prices of oil, beef and fish have sky-rocketed. I've stopped buying too much fish because I just can't afford to anymore." Salam does not believe prices have gone down after the budget or ever will. "The unstable political situation of the country and hoarding by dishonest businessmen is the main reason for this," adds Salam.

The caretaker government's pledge to control hoarding has had little effect on the prices of essentials

51-year-old Firoza Khatun, headmistress of a government primary school in Manikgonj says that because of the limited income her family feels very anxious about running out at the end of the month. "We haven't stopped buying anything because it's just not possible to do without them," says Firoza, "but we are unable to save anything these days."

The prices of essentials make a huge difference in the lives and living standard of the common people. Besides the prices in the kitchen markets, fuel prices have further added to the misery of the lower and middle-income groups. The price of diesel and kerosene increased to Tk 40 from Tk 33. Prices of octane and petrol have been increased to Tk 67 and Tk 65 per litre from Tk 58 and Tk 56. If previous experience is anything to go by, we'll be really lucky to see a fall in these prices any time soon. High import costs and global inflation has only made matters worse. The caretaker government has done some praiseworthy work to combat corruption. But putting restrictions on the amount of goods that can be transported from outside Dhaka has raised the transport cost to a great extent and affected the supply to the market. Trapped from all sides, it's the poor and middle-class who ultimately suffer, having to forgo many nutritious food in order to make ends meet, which could ultimately have devastating consequences for the whole economy.


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