Daily expenses: Miseries mount on poor, middle class

Prothom Alo illustration

Saiful Islam, a sales executive of a private company, was having bread and banana in the capital’s Karwan Bazar area on Sunday. Asked why he was eating bread and banana instead of rice, he said it takes around Tk 80 to have only vegetables, daal (lentils) and rice at any regular restaurants. As his family expenses increased, he started having bread and bananas for lunch.

Saiful gave an account of his family expenditure to these correspondents. He said his house rent increased by Tk 500 in January. The rickshaw fare to take his children to school was around Tk 40. However it has increased to Tk 60 now. Price of daily commodities including rice, oil and sugar is on the rise. Even he has to spend more on office transport as the bus fare too has increased. However, his income has remained the same for the last two years. He is running his family by borrowing money from others every month.

Families of common people like Saiful Islam, have four major areas of expenditure. These are food and daily commodities, house and service rent, educational expenses of children and transport. As the cost of products and services in all the four sectors have spiked simultaneously, the common people are enduring extreme misery at the moment.

The price of rice is high in the markets. The price of daal (lentils), oil and sugar has increased exponentially. The price of various daily commodities, including soap, toothpaste, cosmetics and tissue papers, has gone up as well. The transport costs increased by some 30 to 40 per cent at a time after the price of diesel had increased.

Although the house owners didn’t raise the rent last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year they have. In some cases, educational expenses, including the price of exercise books and pens, have gone up.

As Saiful Islam himself is affiliated with food distribution by profession, he knows the market situation very well. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, “People with limited income are suffering the most. But the situation with the rich is quite different.”

The level of price hike

The Awami League government took charge in this term on 7 January 2019. A comparison of the market price list by government organisation Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) on that day with the market price list on last Thursday shows that the price of coarse rice has increased by 15 per cent, coarse lentils by 77 per cent, unpackaged soybean oil by 54 per cent, sugar by 49 per cent and the price of flour has increased by 21 per cent.

Let’s consider the price of edible oil only. A middle class family of five needs 5 litres of soybean oil on average. According to TCB, the price of a five-litre bottle of soybean oil was between Tk 465 to 510, which is Tk 740 to 780 now. It means, the expenditure of a family for soybean oil alone has increased by 56 per cent.

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The price of fish, meat and vegetables fluctuates on a regular basis. However, the price of chicken produced in farms has been high throughout the last year. For instance, the price of broiler chicken remains more than Tk 150 per kg for most of the year. Even a few days before the outbreak of coronavirus, the price of broiler chicken used to be around Tk 130 per kg. The sellers claim that the cost of chicken, chicken food and transport cost has increased. So the hope to return to the previous rate is almost gone.

The lower income family can hardly afford to buy beef nowadays. According to the TCB, the price of beef varies from Tk 580 to 620 per kg. The price was below Tk 500 three years ago at the same time.

There is no other way than increasing the price a bit for the time being. However, it is still possible to save if we can bring down corruption and waste in supplying fuel oil, gas, electricity and water
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director, Policy Research Institute

Analysing the price of 18 different vegetables, the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) has shown that the price of vegetables has increased by 10 per cent in 2020 alone. They are yet to complete the account 2021 in this regard. Anwar Parvez, an official of CAB, visits the open markets and collects information about retail prices. He told Prothom Alo that this year the price of vegetables has not reduced in winter as much as the previous years.

Not only groceries and kitchen market products, the price of daily necessities has also gone up. Salam Bepari, owner of a grocery shop named Mayer Doa in the capital's Farmgate area, told Prothom Alo, “Even four months ago, a bar of laundry soap would cost Tk 18, but now it is Tk 22. The price of a medium sized bar of aromatic soap has increased by Tk three to five per piece.

The price of 500 grams of detergent powder has increased to Tk 52 from Tk 45. A medium size pack of toothpaste is sold at Tk 48. Previously, the price was Tk 45. The price of tissue papers has also climbed up.

Azizur Rahman, a seller of a shop called 'College Library' adjacent to Lalmatia Women's College in Mohammadpur, Dhaka, highlighted how much the price of educational materials has gone up. He told Prothom Alo that the price of an exercise book has increased from Tk 20 to Tk 25. The price of pencils has increased the most. The price of a pencil of Tk 10 has increased by Tk two to Tk five.

The people who do not have a gas connection from a government company at their house are suffering the most. The price of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which was Tk 800 to Tk 820 per 12 kg in early 2021, has increased to Tk 1,240 now.

Devastated by coronavirus, harassed by the price hike

This pressure on all sectors of spending has come at a time when a section of the people of the country is in distress economically due to the coronavirus. One of them, Imam Hossain of Char Fashion in Bhola, shares rides on the streets of Dhaka. He was waiting for a passenger at the corner of National Institute of Neurosciences and Hospital in Agargaon last Saturday.

When asked, he said he had a shop of electric equipment in Bhola. He used to do electrical works of new houses on contract. He even had some employees. However, in the first year of the pandemic, he incurred a debt of Tk 200,000. Being helpless, he laid off his employees and started ride sharing in Dhaka.

Imam Hossain further said his house-rent was increased to Tk 9,000 in January last. Such is the condition of the market that it is hard to maintain families without earning at least Tk 1,000 per day. He came to Dhaka with hope of repaying all his loans back. However, that is not the case. Rather, he is developing an injury in his backbone by riding on motorcycles continuously from morning till night every day.

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Analysis and survey conducted by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), PPRC and South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) has shown that the number of new poor has increased in the country during the pandemic.

SANEM said the poverty rate in the country has increased to 42 per cent from 21 per cent, but the government has rejected this claim. However, government organisation Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) is yet to conduct any survey and analysis in this regard. In a survey conducted in 2020, they said people’s income had reduced by 20 per cent.

Does the government have anything to do?

The main reason for the spike in price of all commodities in this phase is the price hike in the world market. This argument has been repeatedly raised by the government. Traders also say that shipping costs have gone up along with rising prices in the world market. Import cost has risen due to the devaluation of the taka against the dollar. Now the question remains as did the government have anything to do?

People in decent attire are also queuing up in the lines of TCB now-a-days. As a result, the lines are getting bigger
Commerce minister Tipu Munshi

The economists and analysts say the government has three ways to control the market. They are tax exemption, increasing sales of products in the open market and monitoring.

Regarding the initiatives taken by the government, commerce minister Tipu Munshi told Prothom Alo on Tuesday night, “We have almost doubled the activities of TCB ahead of Ramzan.”

When asked about the long lines for TCB products, the minister said, “People in decent attire are also queuing up in the lines of TCB now-a-days. As a result, the lines are getting bigger.”

Regarding monitoring the markets, the commerce minister said, “There is enough market monitoring. We will seek help from the deputy commissioners to control the price.”

Asked if there was any initiative to reduce the tax on imports of daily commodities including edible oil, the minister said, "We told the NBR (National Board of Revenue). They are not agreeing.”

Meanwhile in November, the government raised the price of diesel by Tk 15 per litre at one go. There is a 34 per cent tariff on this strategic product. There was no tax exemption in this case.

On the other hand, there are complaints from the daily commuters that taking extra money in the name of ‘sitting service’ and fetching extra fare from the passengers haven’t stopped.

Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) has increased the launch fare without verifying the proposals from the owners. People have to bear about 35 to 46 per cent extra fare in launches.

The government reduced the duty on rice imports from 62 per cent to 25 per cent, subject to prior permission. However, due to the conditions, rice import was not that much. The price has not come down either.

Although the government organisations are not so keen in reducing people’s miseries, they are highly proactive in increasing it. Already a proposal to increase the price of gas and electricity has been submitted to the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission. Dhaka WASA also wants to increase the price of water.

‘Corruption must be stopped’

These correspondents asked Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute, what the government should do now. He said, “There is no other way than increasing the price a bit for the time being. However, it is still possible to save if we can reduce the level of corruption and waste in supplying fuel oil, gas, electricity and water."

Ahsan Mansur further said the production of electricity is double than that of the demand. A huge sum of money is being kept as ‘capacity payment’, which is not essential.

*This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu