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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

The rice we eat

Update : 14 May 2015, 06:45 PM

While the government is claiming self-sufficiency in rice production, rise in rice imports hit a four-year high this fiscal year. A visit to the website of the Food Ministry shows that the total quantity of rice imported till April of the current fiscal year stands at more than 1.3 million tonnes, the highest since the fiscal year 2010-11. 

The government publications show that in fiscal 2010-11, the total quantity of rice imported by the government and private sectors stood at 1.5 million tonnes. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, it came down to 0.51 million tonnes and 27 thousand tonnes respectively. In 2013-14, rice imports stood at 3.75 tonnes.

The media reports say that our traders are importing Indian rice because of the price difference between the Indian and Bangladeshi rice. The Indian variety is cheaper by 20% or so than local rice. The increased imports have put Bangladeshi rice-millers in a tight spot as the demand for locally grown coarse and medium quality rice has come down. Consequently, the price of paddy has dropped, causing loss of income to farmers.

Is the price difference between the Indian and Bangladeshi rice the only cause for rice imports by our private sector? It is true that our rice production has trebled since independence. But it is also equally true that in recent years the annual growth rate in rice production has failed to keep pace with the annual population growth rate in the country.

According to Bangladesh Economic Review-2014, the growth rate of crop sub-sector (rice, wheat, vegetables) of broad agriculture sector (crop, livestock and fishery, and forests) in fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14 stood at only 0.59% and 1.91% respectively.

This heavily influenced the rice production growth rate. In fiscal years 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14, growth rate of rice production stood at 1.03%, 0.00% and 1.33% respectively. This means that the average annual rice production growth rate (0.78%) in these three years was lower than the annual population growth rate (1.37%).   

The government has been playing hide and seek over rice imports for the last one year or so. In the last week of June 2014, Food Minister Md Qamrul Islam said: “India usually releases its low-quality stock every three years at low prices and our private sector imports them as cattle feed.”

The importers immediately rebuffed the minister’s claim, and said that they had imported rice for human consumption and not for cattle feed. They also claimed that there was a shortage in supply of rice in the market. As a result, the food minister had to subsequently say: “We need 30 to 40 million tonnes of rice a year. In comparison with [our] requirement, a small quantity of rice is imported from India.”

Dhaka Tribune reported that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opposed a proposal for imposing additional duty on rice import from India. She said: “The government would not bother its losses once the poor people get the Indian rice at a cheaper rate.”

The PM is right if we take into account the continuous rise in rice price in the last five years or so. Coarse rice was selling at Tk20-22 per kg in the open market in mid-2009. The website of the Food Ministry shows that coarse rice was selling at Tk31-33 per kg in retail markets in the capital on April 29 this year.

But the media reports suggest higher prices of coarse and medium quality rice in open markets. This means a 50% or more rise in rice price in the past five years, thereby, causing suffering to the poor and vulnerable. The food ministry has, however, recently asked the National Board of Revenue to impose additional duty on rice imports.

It may be noted that while the price of paddy has reportedly dropped to a three-year low -- almost the same as the price of 2012, the price of rice has not fallen to that extent. A syndication of the rice-millers and their allied traders is adding to the woes of the farmers during the peak harvesting period. This has also happened before.

The syndication wants to buy paddy from the farmers at the lowest price possible, and sell the rice they get from paddy at the highest possible price. Rice procurement policy of the government helps implement their nefarious design.

For instance, the government has decided to procure 1 million tonnes of boro rice this year from the rice-millers and 0.1 million tonnes of boro paddy from the farmers. This has been the policy for many years. Experience from the past ten years or so shows that even the small quantity of paddy is not fully procured from the farmers.

The marginal and small farmers sell paddy and not rice immediately after the start of the harvesting season to repay their loans and meet the family needs. In the absence of government policy to procure large quantity of paddy directly from the farmers, they have to depend on the mercy of the millers and traders to sell their produce.   

The government should not play hide and seek over rice imports. If the domestic production of rice falls short of national requirement, there is nothing wrong in going for imports. After all, ensuring sufficient supply of rice, the staple food of the people of the country, is the responsibility of the government. 

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