Who will save the people from the ‘big fish’?
The poor, hard-working people do not understand the complicated calculations of inflation. They just want to know one thing – whether the prices of food will decrease committed by the government. Or is just another unfulfilled commitment of the government among so many more.
After the election, when Awami League’s general secretary and the minister for road transport and bridges Obaidul Quader spoke of three challenges before the government, he surely didn’t imagine that they would have to tackle these stiff challenges so soon.
Having managed to hold the 7 January election, it can be said that Awami League has more or less dispensed with the political challenge. When Obaidul Quader mentioned the diplomatic challenge, he perhaps had in mind how credible the election has been to the international community and what stern steps the US might take. The government seems to have overcome that challenge too.
When the prices of any commodity shoots up, the ministers and secretaries hold a meeting, directives are issued from above, but there is no monitoring to ensure that the directives are implemented
The heads of governments of the US, UK, the European Union and other countries that had criticised the election for not being free and fair, have displayed their interest in working with the new government in Bangladesh. And in his recent letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the US president Joe Biden said that the United States is committed to supporting Bangladesh’s ambitious economic goals and partnering with Bangladesh on the shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, the director of the Washington-based Wilson Centre’s South Asia Institute, Michael Kugelman, told Prothom Alo in an interview that after the imposition of the visa policy in September, the US did not take any further stern measures regarding Bangladesh in consideration of its relations with India and geopolitical interests. Before the election, Delhi had conveyed a message to Washington that if too much pressure was placed on Dhaka regarding the election and human rights issues, Bangladesh may go completely under China’s influence, which would go against the interests both India and the US. While Washington did not acquiesce to Delhi’s contentions before the election, it has later accepted this. However, it is difficult to discern in advance what pressure suddenly turns up in international politics, and from where.
The war raging between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army had so long been confined to that side of the border. Recently, though, the fallout has been impacting Bangladesh. It is alarming that members of Myanmar’s border guard police and army have been fleeing from rebels and entering Bangladesh.
Just as Bangladesh’s political leadership cannot reach a consensus on any domestic issue, they are equally obdurate when it comes to foreign policy issues too. BNP leaders say that the border with Myanmar is troubled and insecure due to the government’s subservient foreign policy. Awami League leaders, on the other hand, are unwilling to pay heed to what BNP says. They forget that violence on the border can spill over and impact the entire country.
Myanmar is in a state of war at the moment and there is no telling when this will end. Security experts do not foresee the fall of the military junta there anytime soon. The large neighbor which has been supporting the military in Myanmar for so long, will not let that happen. The problem for Bangladesh is that, no matter what optimistic rhetoric the leaders may spew out, the repatriation of the over 1.15 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has become even more uncertain and difficult.
The Awami League general secretary spoke of economic challenges. This includes the disaster in the banking sector. It includes millions of taka being siphoned out of the country, the prices of essentials spiraling beyond the reach of the common people. Just a couple of days after the election, the price of rice leaped up by 6 to 10 taka. Onion prices are out of control. There is no response to these issues.
When the prices of any commodity shoots up, the ministers and secretaries hold a meeting, directives are issued from above, but there is no monitoring to ensure that the directives are implemented. In the past many minister had blamed the price hikes on unscrupulous traders, syndicates, etc. The new state minister for commerce Ahsanul Islam alias Tito is unwilling to use the term ‘syndicate’. He refers to them as ‘big fish’. Just as the big fish gobble up the smaller fish in a pond, a handful of individuals are slashing the pockets of the people in the name of trade and commerce. The state minister says these big fish are devouring everything in the water, on land, and in the skies. When they sense the government is about to lower the duty on any item, they hike up the prices in advance. It is a lot like the discount sales in shopping malls.
The daily Banik Barta on 7 February reported that the price of soybean oil in the international market is lowest in three years. Yet even last month the traders here pushed up the price of bottled soybean oil by four taka a litre, without consulting the government.
It is shocking that on the very same day that the government reduced import duty on rice, oil, sugar and dates, the price of palm oil and soybean oil shot up by 40 to 50 taka per maund in the capital city’s wholesale markets. There was a flurry of activity among the ministers and secretaries to bring the prices down, but the market will not return to what it was. That was the same in the case of rice. And then within a day or two, it was the same with onions and potatoes.
According to a circular of the National Board of Revenue (NBR), VAT has been reduced on the import of edible oil and dates. Import duty has been completely withdrawn on rice and the regulatory duty has been decreased too. Import duty on refined and unrefined sugar has been decreased too. This VAT and duty has been reduced significantly so that it has a positive impact on the market.
However, when the government took the decision to reduce import duty on four items, why did the implementation of the decision take so long? In the time it took to carry out the prime minister’s directives, the commerce minister’s recommendations, for the ministers and secretaries to hold their meetings, the big fish managed to make their big catches.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the overall inflation last December was 9.41 per cent. Food inflation at the time was 9.58 per cent. After December, the price of rice and quite a few other commodities rose. In that case it would not be surprising if the inflation rises over 10 per cent. The poor, hard-working people do not understand the complicated calculations of inflation. They just want to know one thing – whether the prices of food will decrease committed by the government. Or is just another unfulfilled commitment of the government among so many more.
* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor at Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]
* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir