Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Cruel Joke

THE advice of the commerce minister, Faruq Khan, i.e. people should eat less in order to avoid problems like adulteration and price spiral of food, could very well have been an impertinent attempt at inane humour over two issues of serious public concern gone inevitably wrong. Or, it could have been merely an articulation of the minister’s deep-seated indifference to the misery of the people at large, who have been reeling under the twin menaces of food adulteration and food insecurity for long. Worse still, as reported in New Age on Friday, the minister’s conclusion at a discussion on food adulteration on Thursday—i.e. people did not die taking less food; rather, they ran less risk of consuming adulterated food—seems to suggest that he may be completely estranged from real life and real people. The most innocuous interpretation of the minister’s assertion could be that he was trying to make light of his and his government’s abject failure to rein in the prices of food and other essential commodities, and put an end to adulteration of foot items. On every count, though, his remarks are irresponsible and thus unacceptable.

The commerce minister seems to have chosen to conveniently ignore certain cruel facts of life for the vast multitude. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, food inflation in general hit a record 14.36 per cent in April while in rural areas, where most of the poor and marginalised people live, it hit 15.38 per cent—an increase of 5.02 per cent in just one year. In the wake of sustained surge in food prices, people at large have had to spend almost 60 per cent of their income on food, so indicates a host of surveys, including one by the Asian Development Bank. Also, a study by the Consumers’ Association of Bangladesh conducted late last year pointed out that low-income people have had to cut down on their food intake, risking nutrition deficiency, to cope with the price spiral. In other words, a sizeable section of the population has been forced to do what the minister suggested Thursday—i.e. eat less. Unfortunately, given rampant adulteration of food items and the government apparent failure to prevent it, it cannot be said with certainty that less intake for them has meant less risk of consumption of adulterated food.

Just the other day, the parliamentary standing committee on the commerce ministry came down hard on the minister and his ministry for their apparent failure to keep the prices of essentials on check. Earlier, the High Court ordered the government to deploy as many mobile courts as possible to make sure unscrupulous traders do not jack up the prices of certain food items to make a windfall during the month of Ramadan. Overall, thus far, since the Awami League-Jatiya Party government assumed office in January 2009, the commerce minister and his ministry have done precious little to deliver on the ruling party’s electoral pledge of keeping the prices within the reach of the common people.

Yet, the commerce minister, instead of showing remorse, could manage to come up with a suggestion that amounts to a cruel joke about the misery of the people at large. The minister and, for that matter, the government need to realise that if they cannot effectively address the price spiral, the least they can do is stop trivialising the people’s misery.