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The government’s rice in storages has fallen to a 13-year low of 300,000 tonnes. The government was unprepared for such a situation over the stock of rice. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina had ordered to import the grain in August last year, to avoid any possible shortage of rice, but the food ministry couldn’t implement the decision on time. The ministry took four more months to start the process of import 1 million (10 lakh) tonne of rice at government initiative. And allowing private sector to import rice by reducing tariff also took till February this year.

According the food ministry’s daily food situation report, there were 311,000 tonnes of rice in the government’s storage as of 20 April 20. According to the former and incumbent officials of the food department, the government’s stock of rice had only fallen lower, at 280,000 tonnes, in 2008.

The country’s rice production dropped by 2 million (20 lakh) because of cyclone Sidr in 2007. At that time, the caretaker government was in power. Since they couldn’t import rice on time, the price of the grain had reached Tk 50 a kg. Currently, the price of coarse varieties of rice reached a peak at Tk 48-50 a kg since 2017, while price of fine varieties of rice is at Tk 62-65.

Usually, the government strengthens the open market sales (OMS) programme when price of rice increases in the market. It affects the market plus low-income people are able to buy rice at a lower price. But the government progamme is very limited during the Covid-19 restrictions this time. The Directorate General of Food, in a press release last week, said they have been selling 733 tonnes of rice at 715 sales points across the country daily.

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Panic buying by the affluent increased the price of rice after coronavirus broke out in March last year. Then cyclone Amphan and prolonged floods had kept the rice price high throughout the year. According to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), the price of coarse variety of rice, on average, was at Tk 48 a kg in 2020 – up 20 per cent from 2019. The government couldn’t procure rice as per its target during last boro season because of high price of rice in the market. Besides, 83,000 tonnes of rice were procured against a target of 800,000 tonne during aman season.

Former research director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) M Asaduzzaman told Prothom Alo that the food security of huge numbers of people is at risk since they lost their jobs because of coronavirus and lockdown. Considering the situation, the stock of rice should have been increased to 1.5 million (15 lakh) tonnes from 1.1 million (11 lakh) tonnes for a year. The food ministry must explain why the stock of rice has reduced to 300,000 tonnes instead.

Earlier, Bangladesh also faced a problem in importing rice from India. The country (India) stopped export of rice and onions in time of crisis for various reasons including its internal politics and election. This time uncertainty has also prevailed over India’s export of Covid-19 vaccine. Everything considered, Bangladesh should take alternative measures, he added.

Failure in import

Last January, the food ministry finalised a decision to import 2 million (20 lakh) tonnes of rice to meet the deficit. As of 21 April, 259,000 tonnes of rice were imported through government channel and around 650,000 tonnes through private channels. The food ministry gave clearance to 320 companies to import rice and most of them couldn’t do so on time.

Chitta Majumdar from Satkhira is one of the traders with clearance for rice import. He told Prothom Alo that rice must be imported by this month as per the conditions, but the crisis of trucks and congestion in land ports is creating delays. Since boro harvesting has begun, there is a fear of incurring loss if rice is imported with 25 per cent tariff now.

A large portion of the companies receiving import clearance are not regular importers. They are mainly small and medium-scale rice traders. Since they couldn’t make much profit in the first phase, many of them didn’t import rice for the second time. Trader Nurul Islam from Nagaon has a clearance for import. He told Prothom Alo selling imported rice is difficult. So, he imported 10,000 tonnes of rice despite receiving clearance for 20,000 tonnes.

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Two ministers question rice stock

As boro harvesting has begun in haor areas, the food monitoring and evaluation committee held a meeting on 22 April. Six ministers took part in the meeting with the food minster in the chair. Agriculture minister Abdur Razzaque and health minister Zahid Maleque expressed concern over the existing stock of rice at the meeting. They also raised questions about the low stock of rice.

Agriculture minister Abdur Razzaque told Prothom Alo that flood damaged paddy cultivation last year, resulting in low yields and hike in rice price. So, why did it take six months even after prime minister gave permission for quick import of rice considering the situation, he asked. He said there should have been a stock of at least 1 million (10 lakh) tonnes of rice at the government-owned storehouses.

Regarding the ministers’ question on rice stock, food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder told Prothom Alo, “We explained the matter and the ministers were satisfied.” He said rice will arrive from India soon under the government’s initiative to import the grain. The crisis won’t last, he said.

At the meeting, the agriculture ministry recommended purchasing coarse variety of rice at Tk 40 a kg, atap (parboiled rice) at Tk 39 a kg and paddy at Tk 27 kg. The finance ministry objected the move saying parboiled rice was purchased at Tk 36 a kg during last year’s boro season. Raising the price by Tk 4 a kg in a year will have negative impact on inflation

President of the rice mill owners’ body Bangladesh Auto Major and Husking Mill Owners' Association, Abdur Rashid observed if the government decides to procure rice at Tk 40 a kg, target will be fulfilled largely.

Increase open market sale

People’s earnings have dropped during coronavirus. Poverty has increased. People with limited income are gathering at the sale points initiated by the government now more than ever.

Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) released a study last week. It shows pandemic has pushed 24.5 million (2.45 crore) people into people into poverty joining 21 per cent of population who have already been living under poverty line before the pandemic.

Executive chairman of PPRC, Hossain Zillur Rahman told Prothom Alo that more than half of these new poor people live in city. The government must increase the sale of rice on trucks in big cities immediately for these poor people. Poor people should be provided with cash assistance in addition to increasing the stock of rice immediately, he observed.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna

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