“It pains when I look at my children while eating,” says Abu Azad, an employee of a private company’s Rangpur office. The reason behind his sad feelings is his sheer failure in arranging favorite food for his children due to the intolerable high price of essentials.
During a conversation with Prothom Alo, Abu Azad said the commodity prices surged so high that he has been struggling to meet family expenses. He axed fish and meat from the list of regular shopping. Now, they depend on lentils and fried-smashed vegetables (Bhorta, Bhaji) for lunch and dinner.
He used to keep an egg in the regular breakfast menu for each of his two children. Failing to afford the diet, he now provides eggs three days a week.
The commodity prices soared nationwide, so did the cost of living. There are millions of limited-income people like Abu Azad who have been forced to cut expenses in various ways. Some people reduced their spending on fish, meat and milk while some others started depending on foot to commute at short distances, instead of taking a rickshaw ride.
They, in most of the cases, have excluded discretionary spending, like hanging out with family and having snacks in the evening.
These austerity measures turned inadequate for some people as they still are struggling to meet family expenses. Having no other option, they are applying the cost-cut method on the education expenses of their children, refraining from visiting doctors as long as possible, and passing the lunch hours with only bread and banana.
And finally, some of them are being compelled to send their family to the village homes and rent seats at messes.
Prothom Alo talked to some 40 families residing in eight divisional cities, in an effort to obtain the actual scenario of living costs. They said their expenses increased at a much higher rate than their income growth in the last two years.
The affluent are handling the crisis in various ways, but the jobholders with limited income are being the worst sufferers. They cannot have their salaries increased at their own will and there is no apparent option for them to bag additional incomes with hard work.
The current salary structure of export-oriented readymade garments workers came into effect in 2018. The RMG workers are supposed to get a 5 per cent increment annually, though the inflation is much higher than the increment rate.
Rajib Muhuri, a resident of Halishahar area in Chattogram, works at a garments factory and earns Tk 13,000 in total each month. The three-member family – he, his wife, and a daughter – is solely dependent on his income.
Rajib told Prothom Alo that he now walks a distance during his regular commute to and from office to save money. He has also reduced regular shopping expenses. Earlier, he used to buy something for his daughter before returning home, but the ongoing crisis forced him to avoid it.
The prevailing situation of commodity prices is quite unprecedented. Almost all items registered a remarkable price hike.
Let us take flour as an example. According to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB), the price of loose flour, which was Tk 28 to Tk 32 per kg in Dhaka during the same period a year ago, jumped 63 per cent to Tk 48 to Tk 50 within a year.
The price varies slightly from city to city, but the rate of price hikes has remained almost the same across the country. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) said the inflation hit a nine-year high at 7.56 per cent in June this year. However, the economists raised questions over BBS estimation and claimed that the actual figure will be higher.
Lucky Akter, who came to Malibagh kitchen market in Dhaka on Thursday, said she bought broiler chicken at Tk 150 per kg last week, but the price jumped to Tk 200 on that day.
Her husband is a school teacher who earns Tk 22,000 to Tk 23,000 per month. They have two school-going children.
Lucky said half of her husband’s total earnings are spent to pay house rent and gas, electricity and water bills. To cope up with the suddenly increased expenses, they rented out a room of their residence to another family. She also took a job at a boutique house.
Still, they are struggling to meet family expenses. They even could not go to their village home on the occasion of Eid-ul-Azha due to their poor financial condition.
Reduction in education expenses
Some of the 40 families have been forced to stop private tuition of their children while some others are sending their children to relatively cheaper coaching centres.
Fakhrul Anam, principal of Khandakar Abdul Karim Miah Bm College in Rangpur, said he applied the cost-cut theory on many expenses to deal with the high spending. He even had to reduce the education expenses of his children. A college teacher used to tuitor his children, but he has been replaced recently by two college students. It reduced costs for principal Fakhrul Anam to a remarkable extent.
Nijam Uddin, a private job holder in Barishal city, had earlier kept a tutor for teaching his son. But the son now goes to nearby coaching at a half cost.
Abdul Karim, a resident of Natak Ghar Lane in Mymensingh city, said he had no choice but to stop the tuition of his three children for the time being.
Construction worker Md Mustafa of Khulna came up with the same remark. He earns Tk 570 a day if he gets hired. But the earning is quite inadequate to bear his family expenses. The rice, which he bought at Tk 54 per kg, now costs Tk 60, he said.
‘I feel so helpless’
The current situation of commodity prices is quite different from other times. Almost all essentials recorded price hikes due to tumultuous international market, high dollar price, rise in fuel oil price, and mismanagement in the domestic market.
On the other hand, the countrymen are yet to recover completely from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Masud Parvez, 40, was a private job holder in Dhaka, but he lost the job amid the pandemic and moved to his hometown Barishal. He opened a variety store at Fakirbari in the city and now earns bread and butter through it.
Masud said it has been tough for him to bear family expenses with the limited earnings. He said, “The children are being deprived of proper food. As a father, I have no right to let it happen. But what to do, I feel very helpless.”
He said, “The list of exclusions from family expenses is long. But it doesn't help either, I need to reduce more, looking for more opitions.”
Shahidul Islam, a worker at a hardware shop in Rajshahi city, earns Tk 8,000 per month from the shop, in addition to some other minor incomes. He is struggling to lead his six-member family.
While talking to Prothom Alo, he said he has Tk 14,000 due at a grocery shop. With no other option in hand, he recently demanded an increment from his employer, which put him at the risk of being sacked.
‘Cannot afford visiting a physician’
Najir, a 56-year-old man, sells local fruits at Madina Market in Sylhet and earns around Tk 25,000 per month. The essentials’ prices soared sharply, but his income remained the same. He has to pay Tk 7,500 as house rent.
“I have back pain and the elder daughter has toothache. But I cannot afford to visit a physician due to lack of money,” he said.
The 1.3-year-old daughter of Mohshin Rony, a non-government school teacher in Chattogram, developed allergies over the past few days. But he could not take her to a physician.
He no longer can lead the family with his earnings of Tk 25,000. It will cost a lot if he takes the baby to a physician. Now, he decided to take her to a government hospital if her health condition does not improve in the meantime.
Millions at risk
Economist Wahiduddin Mahmud, at an event in Dhaka last December, said a large part of the population always remains at the risk of being poor. With an example, he said, the situation of people at risk is like putting the whole body under water and keeping the nose floating. When a wave comes, it sinks.
Professor Salim Raihan of Dhaka University's Department of Economics said the wave that Wahiduddin Mahmud meant is still going on. Many are at risk of drowning in the wave or falling below the poverty line.
According to the pre-pandemic government estimation, nearly 35 million people are poor in the country while another 40 million remains at the risk of being poor.
When the essentials’ prices rise, the low-income group reduces protein consumption and increases carbohydrate to reduce expenses. If it does not work, they are forced to cut spending in sectors like education, and health, he said.
Salim Raihan also said the government has taken initiatives like family cards, but it is mainly focused on the poor. A section of the low-income people is not included in any programme.