Unregulated potato sales: Farmers and consumers interest should be prioritised
The relentless surge in potato prices has transitioned from being a cause for concern to setting unprecedented records. Potatoes are currently fetching prices ranging from Tk 65 to Tk 70 per kilogram in Dhaka's retail market. Despite various attempts to control this price surge, the government has resorted to importing potatoes. This deregulation of the potato market has persisted for the past two months.
In an attempt to curb these soaring prices, the Ministry of Commerce has set price limits not only for potatoes but also for eggs and onions. Consumer rights campaigns and market surveillance were carried out for several days, but these efforts proved futile.
The decision to import potatoes has raised questions, especially since the Ministry of Agriculture ceased potato exports, citing a surplus in production compared to domestic demand. This leaves us pondering why the prices of this agricultural product have reached historic highs in the local market.
The Agriculture Minister has placed blame on syndicates of cold storage owners for the abnormal price hike. Consumer rights protection directorate also pointed fingers at syndicates. Notably, Prothom Alo reports a significant absence of market surveillance in Munshiganj, the largest potato-producing district in Bangladesh, for over a month. Given this context, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the potato market, which has remained steadfast with high prices for two months, has provided syndicates with an opportunity to reap even greater profits.
The Ministry of Commerce, which has failed to supervise effectively, has also struggled to stabilise prices by increasing the supply of potatoes in the market. Despite the potato market's instability over the past two months, the decision to import has been delayed.
The question that arises is, when new potatoes arrive in the market after a month, how realistic is the decision to import? Notably, the government had previously decided to import eggs, and even after a month and a half, not a single egg has been imported. Consequently, there is no guarantee that, even if the decision is made to import, potatoes will ever reach the country's market or when they will arrive.
The Ministry of Agriculture also bears responsibility for the destabilisation of agricultural product markets, such as potatoes, which are produced in large quantities. Recent years have seen a consistent increase in agricultural production.
However, the disparity between these statistics and the actual situation becomes evident only when a crisis emerges. In the case of potatoes, the Ministry of Agriculture's information indicates that the potatoes produced in the current financial year in the country amount to 1.5 to 2 million tonnes, exceeding the demand.
With such a surplus on paper, it raises the question of how the potatoes that farmers initially sold for 10 to 12 taka after production are now being sold for 65 to 70 taka. When will we realise the essential need for producing realistic data on agricultural production and demand to maintain market stability?
The price of potatoes is subject to manipulation every year, primarily occurring at the cold storage stage. Even when the price of potatoes increases, farmers find themselves without significant profits, as they typically hold their potato stocks until June, at which point they are compelled to sell at lower prices. The market begins to rise from July onwards, transferring control of the potato market into the hands of cold storage owners and dealers. They form syndicates and drive up potato prices, taking money from consumers at their will.
The weaknesses in market management, a lack of coordination between the Ministry of Commerce and Agriculture, and the absence of cooperation among market monitoring agencies are all contributing factors to the potato market falling under the control of these syndicates. It is a widely recognised fact that these syndicates are responsible for destabilising the potato market. However, the system itself is flawed, raising the question of who will dismantle these syndicates.
The fundamental decision that the government must make is whether the interests of farmers and consumers should take precedence or if the interests of these syndicates should prevail.