Minister, secy visit three countries amid dollar crisis to procure rice

Rice sacks at the marketFile photo

The price of coarse and medium rice in the country has spiked by two to three taka per kg in the past one week. According to the government, there is a surplus rice stock. Fearing an impending crisis, the food ministry has already started importing one million tonnes of rice from three countries. The ministry also gave permission to the private sector to import one million tonnes of rice at reduced duty. Amid this, a delegation of six members including the minister of food, secretary and director general of the food directorate are visiting three countries.

The six members including food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder, food secretary Ismail Hossain and director general of the food directorate Sakhawat Hossain went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to discuss rice import. The Vietnam government is bearing the cost of the trip to Vietnam. Bangladesh government is paying the travel expenses for the remaining two countries. This has raised questions about the rationale of foreign trips by government officials at a time when the country is witnessing economic crises.

The delegation led by the food minister and food secretary visited Cambodia from 22 to 24 November. The team visited Vietnam from 24 to 27 November from Cambodia. Currently the delegation is on a visit to Thailand. They are scheduled to return on 1 December.

The prime minister’s office issued instructions regarding foreign travels by government officials including ministers and secretaries on 19 June 2011. It was said that ministers and secretaries or secretaries-in-charge of the same ministry should generally avoid traveling abroad together. This restriction can be relaxed in very limited cases in national interest, especially annual meetings of World Bank, IMF, meetings of donor groups and such.

Besides, the government has banned officials and employees from traveling abroad this month. In the notification issued by the finance department of the ministry of finance said that the foreign travel of the officers and employees of all state-owned organisations at the expense of their respective organisations should remain stopped. The government made this decision as part of the government's plan to reduce the pressure on the foreign exchange reserves due to the global crisis and the continuing dollar crisis in the country.

Former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumder told Prothom Alo that a policy of austerity has been adopted in the country due to the economic crisis. In this situation, it has not be right for the top officials of the food ministry and the food directorate to go on a foreign tour. This is against the declared policy of the government.

The food minister and secretary could not attend the meeting of secretaries with the prime minister Sunday as they were on a foreign trip. There were significant discussions in the meeting on the country's food security. It was said in the meeting that the country has enough food stock. More than 1.6 million tonnes of rice and wheat are stored in government warehouses. The policy makers of the government are convinced that this reserve can meet the needs of government distribution for the next three to four months.

In the meantime, a report has been published in the Hanoi Mail, the leading newspaper of Vietnam, about the visit of a high-level delegation of the Bangladesh government including food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumdar to Vietnam. According to the report titled 'Bangladesh, Vietnam to increase cooperation in agriculture', Vietnam's deputy minister of agriculture and rural development held a meeting with the delegation led by Bangladesh's food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder.

Regarding the meeting, Samina Naz, the ambassador of Bangladesh to Vietnam, told Hanoi Mail that Bangladesh will use the experience of the Vietnam ministry of agriculture and rural development in the agricultural sector. Cooperation between the two countries will further increase. She also hopes that the trade between the two countries will reach 2 billion dollars.

Acting secretary of the ministry of food Salma Momtaz told Prothom Alo, "We are yet to know what was achieved during the visit to the three countries and what kind of discussions were held. We will know the details after the minister and the secretary return.” The acting secretary advised to ask the delegation about the visit.

Last September, Bangladesh signed an agreement to buy 230,000 tonnes of rice from Vietnam at the government level (G2G). Apart from this, 100,000 tonnes of rice is being bought from India and 200,000 tonnes from Myanmar. Parboiled rice is being bought from Vietnam at $521 per tonne and 'atap' rice at $494 per tonne. Although Vietnam will provide atap rice from its own market, it will provide parboiled rice from Thailand.

At that time, the price of rice per tonne in Vietnam and international markets was around 400 dollars. This week it is being sold for 424 dollars. And the price of Thailand's rice reduced by 3 per cent at 410 dollars. And India is selling rice at 371 dollars per tonne in the international market. Rice of Myanmar and Pakistan is also being sold at less than 400 dollars per tonne. Yet Bangladesh has been procuring rice at a higher price from Vietnam. This has raised questions about the visit of the delegation of six members of the top level of the government, including the food minister, secretary, at the state expense of Vietnam.

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh told Prothom Alo, the foreign trip of top officials is wrong and a violation of rules at this time of dollar and reserve crisis. This is also a conflict of interest to visit Vietnam again with its financing after allegations of buying rice from the country at high prices. This has strengthened the allegations of procuring rice at higher prices.

Several attempts were made to contact food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder and food secretary Ismail Hossain by phone but to no avail. Neither of them answered the calls or short messages.

* The report, originally published in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat