Onion, a highly used commodity product in Bangladeshi kitchens, has broken all records in terms of price as well as percentage of price hike within a given period of time. The recent price hike of onions has been the talk of the nation as people everywhere are discussing this unusual jump. This issue was covered not only by the Bangladeshi media but also the international media on several occasions. Moreover, anyone, who uses social media, is receiving thousands of posts related to this onion price hike every day from the frustrated citizens. We have made a culture and food habit which is highly dependent on onions and now it has gone beyond the reach of the mass.
Earlier this week, onion has hit 250 taka per kg, which is extremely absurd. So, it is now costlier than chicken or most of the fruits. The situation is so out of control that the middle and lower income people of the country can now only dream of using onions in their foods and it is raising anger among them which is very much understandable. Though the price may fall in the upcoming days as the government has taken strong import initiatives, if the reasons behind this unrealistic price hike are not found out, then such situation will occur for different products in the future.
The onion price hike has started in Bangladesh from the last part of September this year. It was due to a decision of our neighboring country India. Bangladesh mostly imports onions from India and they are one of the largest onion producers of the world. Due to floods and other natural calamities, onion production in India was severely disrupted this year and the price of onions had gone up in India too. Hence, they imposed an export ban on onions on September 23. Bangladesh produces 1.7 million to 1.9 million tonnes of onion annually and imports 700,000 tonnes to 1.1 million tonnes to meet the domestic demand, according to the government.
The import is mostly from India as that is the most viable solution for Bangladesh considering the proximity of the transacting nations as well as the proximity in the quality and taste as well. But this ban on export by India without any prior notification had huge impact over the probable presence of onions in plenty in the kitchen markets. It was easily visible to the importers as well as traders that Bangladesh is going to face crisis of onion this year.
Immediately after the export ban of India, the Bangladesh government advised the importers to import onions from other countries but they did not do so. It was because, they thought the ban will be lifted after the Durga Puja season and if they import onions from distant countries, they might suffer loss. But that lifting of ban did not happen. This failure to predict the future has actually led to continuous crisis in the market as the so called syndicates of dishonest traders jumped into bringing out maximum profit from the crisis finding this gap between demand and supply.
The import of onions is only 25 to 30 per cent of the total supply every year. There was no evident crisis of onion production in Bangladesh this year. Then, we should have been prepared to cater the 75 per cent demand of the market. If the scenario was so, then Tk. 25 to Tk. 40 of the onion price hike may be justified. But there is no way we can justify a hike of Tk. 220 from the usual price.
The current crisis is not unusual as we have seen such crisis for other commodity products like; salt, chili, sugar etc. on several instances. Moreover, during Ramadan every year, we see such crisis for products like; brinjal, lentils, sugar etc. which are highly in demand during the holy month due to our iftar culture. Here the important thing is that the government and the related offices know very well how much the demand for these products are going to be on different times. They can make an almost accurate prediction. Moreover, they also have good knowledge of the supply or production. If they do, then such crisis cannot be justified. If there is a production crisis, then import of these products can be planned well ahead.
Famines have occurred on our soil on numerous instances. The famine of 1770, popularly known as ‘Chhiyattarer Manvantar’ occurred in 1769 and 1770. The excessive rainfall in 1770 did not relieve the people from the sufferings of drought of the year before; on the contrary, it caused overflowing of rivers and damaged standing crops. The existing revenue system of land and activities of middlemen in the foodgrain market further deteriorated the situation.
The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was one of the worst famines to have struck this region. A series of crop failures beginning from 1938 and other disruptive events accompanying the Second World War precipitated this famine. And the failure on the part of the administration to foresee these crises at the beginning of the war added further fuel to the fire. Assumption, hoarding and profiteering in grain were the main factors accountable for the stunning rise in prices. The government not only failed to handle the situation but also contributed to the price rise.
During the early 1970s, Bangladesh experienced successive natural disasters, war, poor administrative and economic management, international inflation and global food, fertilizer and oil crises. These factors, combined with the existing inequalities of socioeconomic relations, culminated in the 1974 famine. The floods that occurred during the monsoon of 1974 also accelerated a process of rural-urban migration. The response of the government to the crisis was inadequate. The response from international communities also fell far short of the need of the hour. The government’s ability to procure foodgrain from abroad was limited by an acute foreign exchange shortage following the 1973 oil crisis, the abnormal high price of rice in the international market, inability to obtain short-term credit and non-cooperation of the international community.
After the famine of 1974, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared ‘Green Revolution’ as he realized the need to become self-sufficient in food production. We are still getting the benefits of his actions as we have almost reached that goal. But we are yet to control the dishonest syndicates as by creating an artificial price hike, the syndicate earns an additional 3 to 4 thousand crores per week.
Modern achievements in science and technology and their subsequent impact on industry, agriculture, trade and transport brought a radical change both in the meaning and nature of famines. The current crisis of onion may not be similar to the abovementioned, but there are many things common with those famines too.
In all the cases including the current onion crisis, initially the product was available in the market in plenty but with a hint of the upcoming crisis, few traders and middlemen started storing the products which ultimately led to the artificial price hike in the market. Here the failure of the government’s relevant department in controlling and monitoring the market is noteworthy.
Today, with technology based agriculture, we are in a position that for almost no staple food or commodity food products, we need not depend on outside markets unless there is a heavy natural disaster. Different food products grow in different areas in plenty and Bangladesh can claim surplus on several products like; rice, potatoes etc. But we frequently see shortage of certain product or unrealistic price hike. It is mostly because the relevant authority fails to monitor the demand and supply the products in the market.
The food ministry, the food department and other relevant authorities must always remain connected with the market and source of the production. The ruling party has a very large affiliated organization named ‘Bangladesh Krishok League’. They are supposed to work with the issues of the farmers. But they are never found with farmers rather they always stay focused on politics in urban areas. They must work with the respective departments of the government to coordinate the agricultural production of the whole country while ensuring proper price of the crops for the farmers.
Today we are facing crisis with onion and we faced similar crisis with other food products in the past on many instances. Though the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has advised not to consume onions as she previously did in the case of ‘Hilsha’ fish with an intent to reduce pressure on certain products during offseason, it is not a sustainable solution. She has courageously adopted many large projects for the development of Bangladesh. Moreover, she commendably handled and settled crisis like; Monga, natural disasters like; ’98 floods, cyclone ‘Sidr’ and many other big challenges. But such small issues like unusual commodity product price hike can offset all her tremendous achievements and it only happened due to lack of focus from the responsible authority. If the citizens cannot fulfill their basic needs easily, then the big developments will not satisfy them for long.
We are commonly blaming the government or the commerce minister for the current onion crisis. But it is actually the failure of food ministry and department. We hope the relevant authority works with accountability. Otherwise, after onion, we will have similar crisis with some other product. It is not the responsibility of the Prime Minister to monitor the commodity market as there are enough people assigned for that.
The relevant authority and experts must find out the culprits liable for this unusual price hike as well as need to proactively plan production of different commodity products. They must be held accountable. Only if we can learn to be accountable, then we might have a bright future and it is a harsh reality of today’s Bangladesh.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)