During the past few years locally grown onions were mostly sold at a premium price over the imported Indian variety. It was down to economies of scale that the Indian version was cheaper and local growers were getting better prices. The recent price hike that has made the onion almost unaffordable suggests otherwise. This is the outcome of bad weather and floods that hit the country a few months back thereby devastating the crop.
It wasn’t the only crop that has hit record prices. The rising costs being borne by the middle and low income group has been significantly damaging for even the most basic of essentials, especially vegetables. The same phenomenon has affected the Indian crop leading to a ban on the export of the crop to counter shortages in that country. Our dependence on the Indian variety of onions highlights the lack of diversity in the import of vegetables that are essential to the Bengali palate. The government reacted albeit a little late in sourcing onions from Myanmar but that was too little too late. The Food Ministry should have been able to anticipate the shortage much earlier and look for alternative sources beyond Myanmar. Sales at fair prices through the now outdated Trading Corporation of Bangladesh’s outlets were never going to be enough. That people are being forced to buy at prices that are inflated beyond logic comes in the backdrop of media reports that onion traders are using the occasion to make a quick buck.
For the past few years much has been made of the resilience of the economy and self sufficiency in food items. The recent events speak of, at best a false sense of sufficiency thereby putting the onus of meeting supply demand equations squarely on both the Food and Agriculture Ministries with the Ministry of Commerce not far from the fray. The reason for Indian imports is the lack of enthusiasm by our farmers to grow onions simply because they don’t get the proper return on their investment. It has even happened that the Indian variety sold at nearly half the price of the local variety. That there was no outcry officially or from the consumer is a crying shame but that was put down simply to market forces. Market monitoring by the apex business bodies and indeed the government is weak and waits for a crisis rather than prevent one. Consumers have long complained about market monitoring not just for onions but other essentials. There’s no viable reason why businesses should wait with media in tow to address shortages. On the contrary there should be continuous drives and proper monitoring including keeping a watch on the markets from which imports are made. We’ve seen it through the rice crisis in the past and even the sad plight of milk producers dumping their produce on the roads in protest over unfair prices. Food Safety authorities are clamping down on unscrupulous traders putting together the most questionable ingredients that they’re passing off as milk. Lab tests on the so called Bangladesh Standards Testing Authority- cleared sources of milk have sown doubts on some ingredients that haven’t convinced the powers that be. It leaves the hapless consumer in a state of utter flux.
The unacceptable prices of spices and essentials prior to festivals and the month of Ramadan have essentially been glossed over and eroded the consumer’s belief in any form of monitoring. At the end of the day it impacts the family budget where there’s no extra income coming in.
A communications and regulatory affairs specialist, Mahmudur Rahman has worked as head of function with British American Tobacco Bangladesh, Robi and served as the CEO of Bangladesh Cricket Board.