The average day-labourers in Lalmonirhat are struggling to make ends meet as rice prices in the district's local markets are refusing to come down although Aman harvests are ongoing in full swing.
Prices have been hovering in the range of Tk 45 to Tk 55 per kilogramme for the past four months.
Around this time last year, Tk 32 to Tk 35 would have sufficed, pointed out Mansur Ali, a day labourer in his 50s of the sadar upazila's Kulaghat village.
Prices have continued to soar as well-stocked farmers are apparently taking it slow in releasing their harvests amidst apprehensions of reduced yield for inclement weather, recurrent floods and pandemic-induced fears of food shortages.
The difficulties are not of Lalmonirhat's alone.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) early this month raised rice price warnings for Bangladesh to moderate level.
It said in Dhaka market, the prices of medium quality rice continued to increase in October, while those of coarse quality rice showed some signs of softening but, in general, prices were well above their year-earlier levels.
"The high level of prices reflects the seasonal upward pressure exacerbated by concerns over the impact of unfavourable weather on the 2020 Aman harvest, starting from November," it said.
The 2020 Aman crop was affected by several weather setbacks, including excessive precipitation in March and April, followed by Tropical Cyclone Amphan in May and recurrent widespread and severe floods in July and August.
Strong demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic added to the upward pressure.
Overall, prices of rice in October 2020 in Dhaka market were 35 per cent higher than that a year earlier, the FAO said.
Aman is the second biggest crop in Bangladesh in terms of yield after Boro, and accounts for about 35 per cent of the annual output.
The Department of Agricultural Extension has targeted to produce 1.56 crore tonnes of rice from the ongoing harvest season running from November to December.
For Lalmonirhat, the target for Aman rice is 3 lakh metric tonnes.
The government has already initiated the process for making purchases from the international market in its effort to replenish public stocks and bolster its ability to intervene in the market to curb a price spike.
But in the meantime, people like rickshaw puller Jobed Ali of Lalmonirhat town's Shaheed Shahjahan Colony are having to fork out a substantial portion of their income for the staple food.
The slowdown of the economy for Covid-19 lockdowns has already led to many falling in debt, with incomes flailing just to keep up with expenditures behind necessities of life.
"It costs Tk 50 to buy a kilogramme of good quality rice. Most of what I am earning now is spent buying rice," said Ali who is now well past his prime.
Hopes were flying high on Aman harvests replenishing farmers' stocks and bringing prices within reach. Now frustration reigns. Some are even in serious doubt whether prices would ever come down at all.
There has been less paddy this year due to heavy rains and floods, said farmer Sarbesh Ali of Sarpukur village in Aditmari upazila.
But he is happy for his paddy, each maund or roughly each 37 plus kgs of which is bringing him Tk 950 to Tk 1,000, double the rate he got last year.
"I got 109 maunds of paddy from 10 bighas of land. I have sold only 15 maunds…at Tk 980. I have stored the paddy at home...if the price of paddy goes up further…," said a hopeful Sarbesh.
His fellow Naresh Chandra Barman of Doljor village said last year paddy prices had gone up just as they had made their sales. This time around they want to have a go at Lady Luck and wait it out a bit.
"There is no shortage of rice in farmers' homes now," he said, pointing out that he too was able to sprout no less than 148 maunds of paddy from 15 bighas of land.
That farmers are unhurried in selling off their harvests was confirmed by Nazrul Islam, a paddy trader of the upazila's Durakuti Haat.
Last year some 1,600 to 2,000 maunds of paddy were arriving every day for sale at the market around this time but now it had reduced to a trickle, so much so that merely 150 to 200 maunds can be found available, he said.
"We are buying paddy from farmers at higher prices and selling it to wholesalers at a high rate," he said, adding that paddy price are unlikely to come down and thereby that of rice too.
Rice seller Belal Hossain of Goshala Bazar in Lalmonirhat town said millers have been charging high rates and consumers were ultimately having to bear the burden.
He apprehends that if the harvest season failed to cool the market, things may even turn for the worse.
Rice mill owner Ahmed Ali of Lalmonirhat town sees no sign of prices reducing this year. He said farmers seemed unwilling to sell their paddy and whatever they were letting go of were fetching high rates.
Mills, which turn the paddy into rice, were having to accept the rates, for which market prices were eventually not decreasing, he said.