The Financial Express

A bowl of rice, a dash of salt and some green chilli

A bowl of rice, a dash of salt and some green chilli

As an incorrigible Bengali, one who enjoys traditional Bengali meals any hour of the day, I am worried about the scarcity of green chilli that goes with my food, indeed with the food of all my fellow citizens in Bangladesh. That we now must import chilli --- and so far as many as 111 tonnes of the item have already come in from India --- is a depressing thought.

It is as depressing as the realization in recent times that we do not grow enough onions in our country to cater to our needs, that we must look to the readiness of others beyond our borders to sell us onions so that we can go on having the kinds of food that have always nourished us.

In these past few days, for any citizen of Bangladesh, the turmoil generated by a rise in prices, generated of course by a more than 50 per cent leap in the prices of fuel, has been worrying, indeed heart-breaking. It worries us that we must now solicit financial assistance from the IMF and from the World Bank and from the Asian Development Bank to steady ourselves.

That fuel prices were enhanced surreptitiously in the nocturnal hours, without giving citizens the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the move, has saddened us.

Our sadness stems from a multiplicity of reasons, for the majority of us who inhabit this country belong in the middle and poor classes.  These fuel prices have already compelled our children to devise cheaper means of making their way to their classes at college and university.

They have led, predictably and naturally, to conditions where my sister must cough up a fare that will satisfy the tired, lean and thin and perspiring rickshawpuller who will take her to her workplace every morning and back again; where my brother is compelled to take long and steamy bus rides to work and back, too exhausted to focus on life and the residual beauty it yet might contain.

That sister and that brother and those children are at my home, at every home in this country. No relief comes to us when we are informed by those in authority that these are measures of a temporary nature, that sooner or later life will return to normal. We are thus made to go back to a bit of introspection, to remind ourselves that every time prices have increased in this country, they have hardly ever declined to what they were earlier.

On celebratory occasions linked to religiosity, when goods are on sale --- meaning reduced prices for buyers --- in lands abroad, traders in our country raise prices, dip their hands in our pockets, leaving us bereft of money and dignity, almost in tears.

As a citizen, therefore, I have my worries as much as I have my complaints. In a land battered by nature in the shape of floods and cyclones and droughts, we have suffered through the generations. And yet we have been cheered by the fact that people have over the past few decades not died of hunger --- because our farmers have grown enough rice to feed us.

But that moment has seemingly passed, thanks to shifting weather patterns. We import anywhere between 10 and 15 lakh tonnes of rice these days, which is disturbing. Worse is the notion, coming from those who know, that these figures may go up if local cultivation of rice declines more.

We as citizens have no more than humble desires, all related to bare survival. We are happy feeding ourselves on coarse rice, but when a kilogram of coarse rice shoots up to Tk 50 a kilogram, how do we handle the situation? We do not think of premium rice any more, for that has as good as gone beyond our reach, priced between Tk 75 and Tk 82 a kilogram as it is.

We will go for spartan meals, but now we confront circumstances where transportation costs related to rice coming into our markets will leapfrog to a new high because of those fuel prices enforced in the nocturnal hours.

The middle class is stunned into despair; the poor pray for sheer survival. To be sure, our patriotism has room for understanding the exigencies the state is up against. And yet patriotism in these difficult times rests on the idea that austerity must be the rule we follow.

We need to save our dollars, save our forex earnings. So why do our people, businessmen and superannuated civil servants and others, continue to go out of the country on holidays? Why have we not observed a shrinking of personnel at our many diplomatic missions abroad?

In a country of twenty million farmers, we are informed, 75 per cent are in dire need of diesel-powered engines. Can they afford to pay the price for the fuel they need to operate these engines? How many have the wherewithal to withstand this pressure of rising prices?

The BADC is worried and so are we. And then there is the matter of fertilisers, which again must be bought at pretty inconceivable prices. Incomes do not increase for us in the middle class; the poor go to sleep worrying about the next day's meal. And yet we must find the money to pay for it all. Where will that leave us?

It is memories we go back to --- to the times when the monsoon waters brought in their wake floods of fishes we caught as we sat under our umbrellas beside the pond and beside the fields of rice and jute. And then fertilisers came to give us more crops, to take away our fishes and so deprive us of a special gift from the Almighty.

We move around, with old, worn-out empty bags in the market, looking at the fish and then looking inside our sad pockets, wondering which fish to buy, if at all.

And now all that fish, all that rice, all those vegetables will come to our cities and make their way to our villages. We will pay for them all.

We will pay for the fuel those trucks use, we will pay the traders who will raise prices with impunity, with nary a thought to the pains we go through.

That little bowl of steamy rice, with a dash of salt and with a couple of green chilli is all we need. A frugal meal, that is all. Why should that elude us?


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