Rice prices rise despite bumper yield
Despite a bumper yield of Boro paddy in the just concluded season, rice prices are going up, putting increasing pressure on low-income people, many of whom are suffering from income losses for the lockdown and pandemic-induced slowdown of economic activities.
The spike raised questions among consumers as the government agencies earlier claimed increased production of the staple grain in the last three crop seasons: Aus, Aman and Boro.
Market players linked the hike to a slow release by farmers from holdings and stocking by a section of middlemen and millers as uncertainty over the Covid-19 crisis lingers.
Estimates by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) showed that Bangladesh produced 6 per cent more rice year-on-year to 3.86 crore tonnes in fiscal 2020-21.
Of the output last fiscal year, the DAE estimates Boro production to be at over 2 crore tonnes.
On the other hand, the Directorate General of Food is sitting on 15.50 lakh tonnes of food grains thanks to imports and increased procurement from domestic production.
Overall imports of rice also soared to 13.56 lakh tonnes in fiscal 2020-21, up from a meagre 4,000 tonnes the previous year.
Yet prices of Boro rice increased.
Coarse grain was traded at Tk 45.86 per kilogramme (kg) in Dhaka in June, up 2 per cent from a month ago, said data of the Department of Agriculture Marketing (DAM), which is used by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The June prices of coarse grain were the highest since October 2017.
"It costs at least Tk 50 to buy one kg of coarse rice. As there is no income during the lockdown, it is not possible to bear all the expenses of my five-member family," said Abdus Salam, a driver of a CNG-run three-wheeler, yesterday.
He drives the three-wheeler between Mohammadpur, Nababganj and Dohar route.
Staple food marks a price spike at a time when queues of people behind mobile trucks and stores for subsidised rice and essential foods provided by Directorate General of Food are getting longer.
The countrywide lockdown since the beginning of the month destroyed income opportunities for a large number of the population, including micro and small businesses, hawkers, transport workers, rickshaw pullers, daily labourers and restaurant workers.
Salam said there was always long lines in front of the TCB's vehicles.
"If you are behind in line, you may find stocks of commodities run out by the time your turn comes. To whom should I go and share my despair," said Salam, who also stood in a queue to buy commodities including edible oil at less than market rates from the TCB's mobile truck.
Abdul Mutaleb, a consumer, said it was very unfortunate that the price of rice was skyrocketing when millions of pandemic-hit low-income and marginal people were struggling to make ends meet.
Sonahar Ali, a paddy trader, said the paddy price of this year was around 20 per cent higher than that of last year.
As of Saturday, the medium-high quality varieties of paddy, such as BRRI Dhan 28 and BRRI Dhan 29, were being sold at Tk 1,050 to Tk 1,150 per maund.
Meanwhile the paddy varieties from which high-quality minicut rice is produced was at around Tk 1,350 per maund at local markets, according to traders.
Due to uncertainty amid the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers are unwilling to sell paddy right now, unless they are being compelled to do it, said multiple farmers.
"In other years, we sell the paddy when we get a good price. But we did not sell this year because the days ahead might be more difficult due to Covid-19," said Mozammel Haque, a farmer in Jamalpur, a northeastern district.
Many farmers said the current prices of paddy are reasonable.
If the prices of paddy go down below Tk 1,050 per maund, they will have to count losses, they added.
Chitta Majumder, managing director of the Mazumder Group of Industries which operates rice mills, said many farmers were releasing paddy from their stock slowly on expectation that prices of grain would go up this year too.
"Seasonal traders and stockists have also stocked a good amount of rice and paddy this year to profit from the lean season. As a result, the supply of paddy at wholesale markets has been very low," he said.
A number of traders however alleged that some millers stocked paddy to make higher profits as the next big crop Aman would be harvested in the November-December period.
Against this backdrop of spiralling prices, the food ministry decided to allow private importers to import 10 lakh tonnes of rice at 25 per cent customs duty in order to increase supply of the cereal in the domestic market to contain the prices.
Presently, customs tariff to import rice is 62.5 per cent.
"We have taken the decision so that consumers do not suffer for high prices of rice," said Food Secretary Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum.
She said initially, import permission to bring 10 lakh tonnes would be given.
"There is no doubt that we have bumper production. But prices have risen for various factors, problems of transport and labour to handle the grains during the coronavirus crisis. Besides, many also maintained increased stock of rice in their homes amid the pandemic," she said.
The demand for rice is also increasing for population and non-human consumption, she added.
In order to allow the import of rice by private traders, the food ministry requested the National Board of Revenue (NBR) on July 6 to reduce import tariffs for non-basmati and non-scented rice.
Contacted, a senior official of the NBR said they were going over the issue.
Ghulam Rahman, president of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), urged the government to increase the distribution of rice under social safety net programmes to ease the pressure on them.
This will also increase rice supply in the market and help stabilise prices, he said.