68pc people struggle to buy food

A large number of people in the country are struggling to buy food while some of them are even selling their family belongings to buy food and some of them are even having to borrow money.

These observations were made in a survey report of the World Food Programme (WFP).

The report, published on Thursday, said that people had been asked what was the biggest shock to them over the past six months. In response, 88 per cent of them said the high cost of food had been the biggest shock to them.

The other three areas where they felt the impact were costs for healthcare and medical treatment, fuel and transport costs, and natural hazards. Around 68 per cent of the people struggled to buy food.

The people in Sylhet and Barishal divisions were in the worst condition. And the people of Mymensingh and Chattogram divisions were in the best condition.

The WFP report, 'Bangladesh: Food security and Vulnerability Monitoring' is based on a survey of 1200 households. The data was collected from March to August this year from eight divisions of the country.

According to the report, in August 22 per cent of the surveyed households were moderately food insecure. This was an improvement from the 29 per cent reported in July.  And 42 per cent of the low-income households were moderately food insecure and their situation had deteriorated. The reason behind this predicament was reported to be severe price hikes, increase in fuel prices, natural hazards and an increase in diseases and health-related problems.

When asked about the matter, food secretary Ismail Hossain told Prothom Alo, work is on to sell rice in the open market at low cost and to provide 5 million poor people with food assistance under a food-friendly programme. The matter of increased food prices and an expansion of the social safety net will be raised at the meeting of the government's Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU). If the matter is approved there, the food assistance programme for the poor will be expanded further.

Borrowing, dipping into savings

The survey, in highlighting the situation in August, said that 68 per cent of the households had taken loans to meet the family food demands. And 29 per cent of the people had dipped into their savings. Also, 10 per cent of the households had started spending from their savings of the past 12 months in order to buy food. The people of Sylhet and Barishal divisions were the most adversely impacted, with 75 per cent of the people there struggling.

The report explained why the crisis was worst in Sylhet and Barishal. It said the households in Sylhet were still recovering from the adverse impact of the severe floods. In May this year, around three-fourths of Sylhet had been inundated in flood water. Rice crops had been destroyed. The rice of that boro crop season is the only crop for the farmers of the in Sylhet where wetlands made up a large part of the region.

The World Food Programme report said that the low and mid income people were unable to take the pressure of the spiralling cost of essential commodities. This continuous pressure had major implications for the future ability of the households to become resilient.

Vegetable consumption down, potatoes up

Highlighting the various steps adopted by the government of Bangladesh to tackle the food crisis, the report said the government had lowered import duty in order to increase supply of rice and lower prices in the private sector. Approval was given for the import of 1.2 million tonnes (12 lakh tonnes) of rice by the private sector.

At a government level, initiative has been taken to import wheat and rice from Russia and Vietnam. The government has started a special social safety net programme for 5 million poor people. Even after all these initiatives adopted by the government, the price of rice and wheat has increased and the prices of vegetables, eggs, lentils, fish, sugar, onions, ginger, garlic and turmeric are on also a steady rise.

In July and August, inflation exceeded 7 per cent. The lower and middle income people are decreasing their food purchases in order to deal with the pressure of this inflation.

The report said that the low income people were stepping up their coping mechanisms to face the rising cost of food and decreased incomes. With the price of other vegetables going up, they are increasing their consumption of potatoes. Outside of Dhaka, most people managed to gather vegetables and get fish locally by cultivation or from open water bodies. But with less rains this year and extreme weather conditions, that scope lessened too.

Rather than rejecting the WFP report, the government should immediately stand by the people... a national relief fund should be created to start up a long-term food assistance programme for the poor
Nazneen Ahmed, chief economist of UNDP in Bangladesh

Initiative required

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) directives, there are highest nutrient content in eight types of organic proteins. The WFP report says that only 17 per cent of the households are able to consume adequate amounts of meat, fish, seafood and other nutritious foods. The rest cannot avail such food. Generally speaking, children, expectant mothers and women suffering from malnutrition should eat such food. It is a matter of concern that they are unable to consume such food on a regular basis.

Chief economist of UNDP in Bangladesh, Nazneen Ahmed, told Prothom Alo, after the Covid outbreak, Bangladesh has been facing one calamity after the other. The prices of the main food commodities have gone up due to the Russia-Ukraine war. In such a situation, rather than rejecting the WFP report, the government should immediately stand by the people.

She said, rather than taking up a programme or project-based initiative, a national relief fund should be created to start up a long-term food assistance programme for the poor with funds from the government and private sector.