Bangladesh: Hidden Hunger

Unheard Voices Blog quotes UNDP which hit the panic button for Bangladesh last month:

Skyrocketing oil prices have driven up the cost of food worldwide, but their impact has been particularly dire in Bangladesh, where almost half of the 145 million people live on less than one dollar a day.

For those who do not know, the staple food of Bangladesh is rice and the price of this commodity has almost doubled than what it was about a year and a half ago. And the poor in this populous country have been hardest hit.

WFP has warned:

The rising prices of food items, especially rice, may cause political instability in the country since poorer households spend up to 80 percent of their income on food.

Himu quotes a newspaper article which shows how many poor Bangladeshis even the middle class are barely making ends meet. The people are not well and you can hear their plights and anger echoing in blogs, media everywhere.

Rumi Ahmed of In the Middle of Nowhere questions about famine in his post “is it here”. Posting photo of a skinny man who is presumably a drug addict he writes:

“The vulnerable groups are usually the homeless, the poorest of the poor of the society. And among them the first to fall through the safety net are the mentally-physically disabled persons, drug addicts, the elderly and the children. It has been many years I last saw a skeleton image of a Bangladeshi citizen.

News reports of hunger death started appearing scattered in our print media. This report [bn] confirms several hunger deaths. ”

Even the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management confirmed that no famine but a hidden hunger persists in the country.

Meanwhile Bangladesh's military chief’s remark encouraging eating potato instead of rice got bloggers reacting strongly. Shafiur has even posted recipes of mashed potatoes in response to his remark.

The reasons for this impending disaster are manifold. Bangladesh had a bad year in natural disaster in 2007. With a prolonged flood and the devastation of cyclone Sidr left its own rice production much lower than usual. There is a new government which did not have the experience in predicting the shortage and piling up sufficient stock although they were warned. Now the shortage in supply is effecting more on price. The government controlled food distribution centers were abolished some years ago with the pressure of World Bank and IMF. Now with no such wide scale distribution arm the government is not being able to keep the prices down with a small number of rationing booths.

Subinoy Mustofi, an blogger and an economist by profession describes [bn] why the price of rice has raised so much in his post in Bangla Blog Na Bola Kotha.

* Recent natural disasters in major rice producing countries hampered production
* The rice growing fields have decreased
* More demands from developing nations like India and China

So more demand and short supply has raised the price in the world market to a twenty years high.

Because of the rising price major rice producing countries like Vietnam, Egypt and India has decreased export and concentrated on keeping price in grip in domestic market. Neighboring India which is the largest suppliers of rice to Bangladesh set an import price of 1200USD per ton, a price almost three times high than 6 months ago. Moreover the food reserves all over the world is all time low.

Jyoti claims in Unheard Voices:

The chart below shows that taka depreciated by around 20 paisa against the rupee since the beginning of 2007.

Taka depreciation

In addition to the global factors (see here) and the natural disasters, this depreciation alone could have sent our food market into a frenzy.

Subinoy Mustofi also shows [bn] that because of inflation the purchasing power (real income) of the poor in Bangladesh has gone down 5% although there is an overall GDP growth of 5%.

The situation is likely to persist in the near future. A Financial Times article on the March 28, 2008 reveals:

Rice prices jumped 30 per cent to an all-time high on Thursday, raising fears of fresh outbreaks of social unrest across Asia where the grain is a staple food for more than 2.5bn people.

Now the question is how to tackle the situation. Famous writer Anisul Haque quotes Indian noble laureate Amarta Sen in Bangla Blog Na Bola Kotha:

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.

In a recent BBC debate (in Bangla) among politicians and general people the participants have echoed this and commented that Bangladesh needs to be back in the road of democracy really quickly.

An ordinary citizen reports that the government is introducing widespread employment opportunity for the poor people – a 10 million Taka project till April to enable the poor to have the purchasing power matching the price hike.

The Government hopes that a bumper Boro crop awaits and will be in market by end of this month to ease rice prices down. This news and the recent imports of rice from India at government level has apparently caused the price rises to cease but people fear will that be enough to minimize the hidden hunger?


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