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Food scare haunts Bangladeshis as new year dawns

Food scare haunts Bangladeshis as new year dawns
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First Published: Tue, Jan 01 2008. 01 44 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Jan 01 2008. 01 44 PM IST
By Reuters
Dhaka: Thousands of Bangladeshis queued up early on 1 January at fixed rate food shops run by paramilitary troops in the capital Dhaka, as prices of rice and other consumables rose alarmingly in retail markets. Officials and traders both say there is no hope prices will come down soon.
Since last week rice, the country’s main staple, sold at nearly 40 taka ($0.60) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in retail markets, twice the price the troops are offering, buyers said.
But the troops’ shops do not reach the vast majority of Bangladesh’s more than 140 million people, who live in villages and suffered from repeated loss of crops due to floods and cyclones in the past year.
Traders and officials say food prices more than doubled since the army-backed interim government took over last January, promising to tackle what it said were “syndicates” (dishonest traders) pushing food prices up.
As the government, headed by former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed, nears completion of its first year in office, prices continue to soar to all-time highs.
The government blames the spike largely on high commodity and fuel prices in international markets, and partly on dishonest traders and natural calamities. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmed, president of the Bangladesh Economic Association, said rocketing prices reflected “poor market control.”
“Commodities selling at exorbitant prices include rice, wheat, flour, edible oil, milk, spices, pulses, fish, meat and vegetables,” said Shahabuddin Ahmed, a buyer at a Dhaka market.
The retail sellers said they had to buy these foodstuffs at high rates from wholesale dealers and so could not ask lower price from the buyers.
“We have been standing in the queue for hours since before sunrise,” said Majeda Begum, a woman in the food queue at a paramilitary shop on 1 January.
“But we have no other alternative as we cannot afford to buy rice and other everyday needs from the usual markets,” said Majeda, wife of a rickshaw puller. Most of the nearly 3,000 people in the queue were women. The paramilitary runs 40 shops in Dhaka, a city of nearly 11 million people.
Bangladesh produces around 29 million tonnes of rice and wheat annually, nearly enough to feed its population.
But two spells of devastating floods in July-September last year followed by the country’s worst cyclone since 1991 in November destroyed nearly 1.8 million tonnes of rice, forcing authorities to issue an international appeal for emergency food aid.
One hope was an offer by India to sell 500,000 tonnes of rice in the post-cyclone period as a special gesture as New Delhi agreed to temporarily suspend a ban on rice exports. But the deal has not been finalised, complicated by India saying the imports should be through official channels only, meaning the Bangladesh government would buy the rice from Indian government agencies, rather than private traders.
Also, the Indian government lately raised its export price of rice by $75 to $500 a tonne, citing short supplies in domestic markets, adding to Dhaka’s difficulty in buying it.
Business leaders say that meanwhile many traders shied away from importing goods fearful of being caught in a massive anti-corruption drive launched by the government.
The government recently said it would “deal softly” with the business community so they can regain confidence to come back into business. But few have responded.
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First Published: Tue, Jan 01 2008. 01 44 PM IST