Rice price scam in Bangladesh

In the modern day, Bangladeshis definitely do not expect to get 8 maunds of rice in exchange for one taka, but they too do not deserve now to buy one kilogram of coarse rice for 50 taka


Shaista Khan, who as a viceroy of the Mughal governed medieval Bengal in two stints from 1664 to 1677 and from 1679 to 1689, has always been praised for setting a benchmark for low price of rice: historians record rice used to be sold at 8 maunds [1 maund is equal to 37.32 kilogram.] per taka during his reign.

Like any other rulers, Shaista Khan seemed to be ecstatic to provide his subjects with the easily available key food grain. Low price of rice is still considered one of the components of prosperity in a regime. 

“…he [Shaista Khan] built up the western gate, and inscribed over it an execration against any future governor who should presume to open it till he had reduced the price of grain to a dumree [coin] per seer [0.93 kg], or 640 pounds weight for the rupee,” writes Charles Stewart in his 1813 publication of the History of Bengal.

Now in modern Bengal, rice price hike sets a new record: for the first time in the history of Bangladesh, coarse rice hit 50 taka a kilogram in mid-September this year, drawing a huge outcry from the public. Quoting the state-run TCB (Trading Corporation of Bangladesh), which is entrusted with the duty to import and distribute commodities at fair prices to keep the market stable, media reported that coarse rice was selling at Tk 50-Tk54 a kg while fine rice was selling at Tk62-Tk68 a kg in the bazaars of Dhaka. The prices of rice are nearly 50 percent up compared to the prices one year ago.

This year rice price rose abnormally after the government stocks of rice dwindled to 300,000 tonnes as against 600,000 tonnes, giving a rise to the notion that the crisis is artificial.

The crop loss of around 20 lakh (2 million) tonnes in the Boro paddy season because of the second phase of the recent flash flood, info of dwindling stocks in government warehouses, sudden rise in prices on international markets and lack of quick government response to meet the shortfall have contributed to the abnormal situation.

All the efforts by the government to tame the rice price went in vain. In two phases between June and August, it slashed the duty on rice import to 2 percent from 28 percent only to cool down the soaring prices. And apparently unable to control the hike the government also started OMS (open market sale) of the commodity.

The country that boasts for its food autarky with around 3.47 crore tonnes of rice production a year has failed to ensure smooth supply of rice at fair prices not just because of substantial crop loss due to natural calamities but also of errors in distribution.

Apart from 20 lakh tonnes of crop loss, the country also incurred loss of around 10 lakh (1 million) tonnes of rice in the first phase of the flood, totaling the deficit of around 30 lakh (3 million). And the government surely failed to respond quickly. The government’s procrastinated decision to cut rice import duty and that too in two phases was a bonanza for the hoarders. 

Again the government did not bother to strictly enforce the Essential Articles (Price Control and Anti-Hoarding) Act. There had been no stocktaking of rice with the private dealers and importers as well, putting the government in a precarious position to tighten its grip over the situation.

The function of TCB, the government’s key tool to tame commodity prices, has weakened over the years, leaving both the government and the consumer under the mercy of private sector importers.

Dearth of price monitoring mechanism by the regulator or the government is the Achilles’ heel and it is not applicable to rice only. Other commodities such as onion, pulses, gram, sugar and salt are destined to see skyrocketting prices at least once a year.

The textbook economic theory of supply and demand does not work in these days as the government machinery turns a blind eye to the malpractice, thanks to the nexus of a section of traders and regulatory officials.

There will be no respite from the artificial shortage unless there is a strong monitoring mechanism put in place as most of the cases supply or availability is hamstrung by man-made crisis.

Only prudent government measures in the areas of stocktaking, distribution and market monitoring are keys to addressing the crisis facing Bangladesh every year.

In the modern day, Bangladeshi people definitely do not expect to get 8 maunds of rice in exchange for one taka. But they too do not deserve now to buy one kilogram of coarse rice for 50 taka.

Anyway, the western gate Shaista Khan built up, prohibiting any future ruler to open it unless the rice price was reduced to 8 maunds for one taka, did not remain closed for ever.

Sarfaraz Khan (1739-1740), the once nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, ruled Dhaka with the help of Ghalib Ali Khan as his deputy and Jaswant Rai as the diwan, bringing the “same degree of peace and prosperity as was witnessed during the time of Shaista Khan”.

“So prosperous indeed was Dacca in his [Jaswant Rai] time that the price of rice once more fell to 640 lbs per rupee and the gate closed by Shaista Khan was thrown open,” writes Basil Copleston Allen in his 1912 publication of Dacca: Eastern Bengal District Gazetteers.

Records are made to be broken!


First Appeared on:

15 October, 2017 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 14 October, 2017 08:39:11 PM

The writer is the Executive Editor of The Independent.

E-Mail: shamim.zahedy@theindependentbd.com

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