Students of public universities residing in the halls of the institutions are trapped in a crisis not of their making. With a very large number of them coming from very humble backgrounds, they have of late been finding it hard to cope with the rise in prices of the food they eat in their hall dining spaces.
That is when it hurts. And the hurt is in all of us, especially those of us who have passed through poverty, for we remember the days in the mid-1970s when a ration card was our hold on life. With parents struggling to offer decent meals to us, with prices of rice and other food items hitting the ceiling, those ration cards were a guarantee that we would survive. Never mind the long queues at the ration shops.
They were hard times we lived through. And today when we hear university students plaintively informing us that they have been compelled to cut down on the food they consume, because the prices of food items have gone up, prices they cannot handle --- and they have gone up because everything in the market has gone through the roof in terms of prices --- we understand their agony. Many of our generation have been there before.
But are we, as citizens who have been through it all, in any position to lift these young people out of the bind they are in? Many of these students tutor the young, enough to fend for themselves and sometimes send a small pouch of money back home to their poverty-stricken parents and siblings in the villages. And there are too the young men who, used to paying as much as a thousand taka a month for their meals (money sent from home), must now cough up five hundred taka more because the rice, fish, meat, vegetables and lentil soup they consume have turned more expensive.
The plain fact is that these students, their eyes on a future underscored by forthcoming happiness, dare not ask their parents for that extra five hundred. And so what do they do? They skip a meal, go hungry, for their circumstances will not let them tide over the crisis. It is a sad picture, for here you have students who coach younger students --- those in school or college --- to avoid being a burden on their guardians. And you have students dependent on their hard-working parents for bare survival. When circumstances force these young to skip meals, we are all left thoroughly embarrassed. The tears well up in us from somewhere deep inside.
Covid and the war in Ukraine have pushed us all to these extremities of pain. Every segment of society, save the affluent class, has suffered and goes on suffering. When a schoolboy abandons his studies, because both his parents have lost their jobs at the garment factory, and takes to plying a rickshaw, you feel the pain of deprivation in severe vicarious manner. When schools slice the salaries of teachers by half or bid goodbye to teachers they cannot pay, you realise that life is in free fall. When teachers sell vegetables in urban alleys, reason takes leave of us all; and we look on, stunned in our helplessness.
Ask the men who own all those roadside restaurants, the very places where the poor and the lower middle class are wont to spend evenings over a few shingaras and a cup of tea. No more can they afford a few shingaras but perhaps only one; and when a cup of tea makes a jump from five taka to ten, all you can do is leave the place quietly and go home. With your children waiting at home for you, you do not have the heart to spend ten taka on a cup of tea you would rather save for the family. Poverty is a hard taskmaster. It is pitiless in its assault on the helpless.
Take a walk around a kitchen market and observe the despondent looks on the faces of the men and women unable to decide how many chickens to buy for the family. If yesterday the person returning home from work stopped by at the market to collect five chickens, today he does not have the will or the courage to buy more than one. Who knows? Perhaps he will buy no chicken at all, for his pockets are not deep, hold little or no money. And beef and mutton? He does not even think of it.
Office-goers do not anymore troop into restaurants in the vicinity of their workplaces during lunch hours. They simply cannot afford to tackle the higher prices charged for the rice and curry they once relished. Their food, in threadbare form, is what they carry from home in the morning.Is that food nutritious? Is it filling? Never mind these questions. These men, with struggling wives at home and with children in school, are wracked by thoughts of keeping their families going.
We live in terrible times. A pandemic followed by a distant war with ramifications for all of us has turned life on its head. We go searching for soybean oil in the market; we worry about the price of wheat. We do not approach the shops dealing in meat; and as for fish, it is the tiny specimens of them we look for, hoping there will be enough cash in our pockets to pay for them should we call forth the courage to buy them.
It is not that restaurant owners are making life difficult for us. It is not always the case that food shop ownersare always looking to fleece us. The owners of these establishments have been losing money, and profits are an impossible dream. They cannot afford to sell their stuff at the old prices; and their customers cannot afford to pay new prices for what they need to consume.
Austerity, did you say? When prices rise in a manner disproportionate to income, austerity is a misnomer. When that university student decides to skip a meal a day, it is not austerity he practices; he engages in a tough struggle to keep his headabove the water. When restaurant owners tell their workers that they cannot pay them, that therefore they must leave, it is not hearts of stone working in them but reality dark and incomprehensible in form.
People who once travelled by taxi now go for rickshaws. And with rickshaw fares rising steeply and sharply, the men and women who loved riding them must now walk --- in steamy weather, in heavy downpour.
It is time for the republic, now that it is poised to graduate to middle income nation status, now that its GDP is in a healthy state, to undertake the task of framing a social security structure that will ensure the survival of all citizens with dignity.
Social democracy should be the new mega project --- for a nation needs nothing more than an assurance of food affordable for all, nothing more than prices which do not go beyond the purchasing power of the common man, nothing more than jobs across the board for the young, nothing more than a purposeful education touching present and future generations, nothing more than a health system that is free and universal and functional across the land.