Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, September 2, 2009

Price and prejudice

By Kazim Ibn Sadique
Photo: Munem Wasif/Life Style Archive

'Uh… there's no space in there,' Nafis said, after checking out another restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat package. 'Is it just me or do they fill up faster now?' asked Kabir. Faisal shook his head, 'Where do people get all this money? How come I don't get more money?' They had been roaming around for the last hour or so looking for a place to have their Iftaar. Allowances haven't increased much, but restaurant menus seem to be arguing against breaking the fast in style. But that didn't stop people. The cheaper restaurants were already filled. So, apparently, were the expensive ones. In the end, as they bought food from a vendor and headed for the lakeside to await the Azaan, Faisal wondered how much worse things could get.

The same thoughts would occur to quite a few people for different reasons.

Can't get a date
One of the most traditional and common items on the Iftaar plate is dates. In fact, many consider Iftaar incomplete without them. But this Ramadan, the price of dates has been quite high. Much of the blame has been attributed to the tax on imported goods, which has been belatedly lowered. 'Good quality dates are beyond my budget,' says Jesmin, a homemaker. The cheaper dates available are of doubtful health. They are imported in sacks, clumped together. After they are separated, they are oiled to make them a bit less dry and sticky and then repacked. The de-clumping and oiling take place in unhygienic conditions, which is deterring buyers.

Summer's out, but the heat is still on
And mostly it's inflaming the veggie markets. Green chillies are hurting the most, per kg is being sold at Tk 200. The next big hotshot is aubergines, which is being called at Tk 70-100. Tomatoes and carrots are battling it out for the third place. The prices of other essentials have also skyrocketed. Soya bean oil and sugar, pulses, onions and eggs all have reached new levels in their hikes, higher than that of the previous Ramadan.

Eat dirt…no, poison, and smile
The bhejal situation has also gotten worse. The market is flooded with substandard merchandise by retailers looking to take advantage of the situation. Adulteration in readymade food has always been common. They seem to have become a bit more widespread. Some of the piyajus and aluchops have clear colourings. The begunis don't seem to have begun. 'I don't think I'll ever buy Iftaar from Chawkbazaar again,' says Anisur Rahman, a shopkeeper. 'I bought some food a two days ago and later realized that they were at least a day old, possibly more.' Recently the government uncovered puffed rice whiteners that are essentially poison. Even the good-humoured folk who keep saying we have got stomachs of iron are now keeping quiet. What with the swine flu panic, the pharmaceutical troubles, the horrid traffic jams and the raised prices, we already have enough on our plates without severe diarrhoea outbreaks.

What's being done about this?
Although price hikes during Ramadan are quite common in Muslim countries, our market seems very much out of control. The government has opened some fair price shops to at least ease the suffering of the low-income bracket, though some people are sceptical about the effect they are having.

The anti-adulteration drive, although lacking in its former tenacity, is still trying to curb some of the malpractices. Though it sounds cliché, most people are inclined to blame the government. According to economists such as Salim Raihan, 'the government has been late in taking effective measures to reduce the prices.' The Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, which is charged with importing and distributing goods at fair prices and to keep an eye on the supply and prices of essential goods, has been activated too late, he alleges. The syndicate of businessmen guilty of hoarding the supplies and causing an artificial deficit in the market still seem to be untouchable. The government has in turn, blamed the media for causing price panics.

As much as this is frustrating, at the end of the day, there seems to be nothing more we can do except brace ourselves. And not to sound condescending, but please keep in mind the spirit of Ramadan. Maybe skip an eating fiesta one evening and have an Iftaar distribution instead?



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