A hostile nature this year has forced Bangladesh to go for import of rice although the country has long been acclaimed by the international community for its food security. Onrush of flood waters from the upstream in vast Haor (wetlands) areas has sapped the vitals of the country so far as food availability is concerned. The importance of food in ensuring development and social stability does hardly need any mention and the government has always been aware of this fact. This year too, arrangements are now being made to import food grains to meet the gap caused by catastrophic damage to paddy crops due to flash floods.
Boro crops on 219,840 hectares of land in all the Haors in Sunamganj and Moulvibazar districts, such as Tanguar, Dekar, Shonir, Pagnar and Hakaluki, have been totally damaged by the recent flash floods. Besides, several thousand hectares of paddy have been damaged due to blast diseases in Barisal, Satkhira, Jessore, Khulna, Gazipur, Mymensingh, Chuadanga, Kushtia, Bogra, Naogaon, Gaibandha, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Nilphamari, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat and Jhenidah districts. Earlier, a production target of 19.1 million tonnes of rice was set this year, but now the officials expect it to be around 18.0 million tonnes.
Both official and unofficial sources say there might be a shortfall of rice by about 1.5 million tonnes this year. Against this backdrop, the Food Ministry has decided to import 6,00,000 tonnes of rice. The Directorate of Food recently floated a tender to import 50,000 tonnes of rice as part of the procurement. According to a ministry statement, the government warehouses have a stock of around 487,140 tonnes of foodgrains-262,274 tonnes of rice and 224,866 tonnes of wheat. The warehouses had stock of 800,000 tonnes of food grain in April last year. The government stopped importing rice in 2011 after becoming a food-sufficient country with local production. As a result, only private traders have been importing a small quantity of rice to meet the country's demand for fine rice.
For the first time, Bangladesh exported around 50,000 metric tonnes of rice to Sri Lanka in 2015. With this export, Bangladesh quite justifiably claimed to have become a food exporting country. But the long queues before trucks selling Open Market Sale (OMS) programme point to severe hardship middle and fixed income groups of people face today due to soaring prices of rice. The OMS with highly subsidised grains is just a peanut compared to the demand of the vast majority living in both urban and rural areas now simply reeling from severe food inflation.
Zahid Hussain, lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office, found the rise in food inflation in large increases in rice prices. He attributed the rice price spiral to increased tariff on rice imports, decline in public rice stock that has limited the government's ability to contain price hikes through market-based interventions, and production losses due to early flash floods in Haor areas. In fiscal 2016-17, the government hiked the import duty on rice from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. On the other hand, rice stocks at public warehouses stood at 4,90,000 tonnes at the end of March this year-- down 43.7 per cent from a year earlier, according to data from the food ministry.
Rice prices matter most in Bangladesh as 70 per cent people live in rural areas where agriculture is the major occupation. Almost 60 per cent of rural households are engaged in farming. The farming household can access their food from self-production and/or trading the surplus with other foods available in the local market. But the landownership is unequally distributed, and so is the access to food from self-production. Almost 30 per cent of the households do not own any land and another 35 per cent own only up to half an acre. Such tiny landownership is insufficient to meet the food needs of the households, whatever advanced technology the farmer would use, Dr Mahabub Hossain, a celebrated farm economist found. He said a tenancy market is in operation that provides access to land for landless and marginal landowners for farming. But the terms and conditions of tenancy do not favour tenants. So, a large proportion of marginal farmers go to the market to access food as their own production after payment of rent and interest for loans is inadequate to meet the household need.
The government, in close consultations with agricultural scientists and experts, should immediately draw up an effective long-term strategy to deal with the crucial issue of food security in the face of climate change. There must be preparedness in all relevant fronts to deal with floods and droughts before such conditions threaten to disrupt food security. Timing of cultivation of paddy and wheat has to be re-set after close monitoring so that production of these two staples does not come under any strains in the future.
True, the government has given high priority to the safety nets for ensuring food security. Currently nearly 2.2 per cent of the GDP are allocated for safety nets and social protection. But an evaluation of the programmes, however, reveals several limitations: a) large overheads due to operation of a large number of small programmes by different ministry often with the same objectives, b) improper targeting of beneficiary households, and c) leakages in implementation. All these have to be re-evaluated on an emergency basis to meet the exigencies due to freaks of nature in order to bail the hard-hit population out of temporary shortages.