Published:  12:59 AM, 19 September 2023

Syndicates are taking higher prices for commodities than the government has fixed

It's alarming to know that domestic prices of consumer goods have already started to take a hit from the fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and fears of consequent price hikes on the international market. Since Thursday morning, according to a report, the wholesale prices of major consumer goods have gone up from around Tk 100 to Tk 600 per maund. Any increase in the global prices of essential commodities—especially oil and gas—would, understandably, impact the local market too. The commerce minister has said as much while commenting on the Ukraine situation, assuring that the government would control prices with subsidies if it happens. But as the report suggests, this is already happening, with a combination of greed, fears and speculations driving up the prices.

Apart from edible oil, wholesale prices of rice, wheat and sugar in Khatunganj, Chattogram—the country's largest wholesale market for consumer goods—have reportedly gone up, as have that of other food and non-food items. To justify the early price hikes, traders talk of fears of global fuel prices rising in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. There are also fears of disruptions in the global supply chain, leading to an increased demand for advance purchases. The rising demand for products ahead of Ramadan is also causing a hoarding spree. It may not be long before the debilitating effects of all this hits the retail market too.

We are deeply concerned by what this means for ordinary consumers. They are already overwhelmed by skyrocketing prices of almost all essential items amid talks of another round of tariff hikes of gas, water and electricity. The cost of living has significantly gone up. According to a report, a typical middle-class resident of Dhaka needs more than Tk 50,000 a month to meet the basic needs of a family of four. The truth is, the majority of Dhaka's 20 million residents don't even earn that amount. A grotesque testament to their actual buying ability of late has been a growing pile of videos showing people running after the Open Market Sale (OMS) trucks. These trucks, meant for selling products at controlled prices to the poor and low-income groups, are now being frequented by people from middle-income groups too.

So when the commerce minister says that the government will control prices with subsidies if the Ukraine crisis increases prices on the international market—and that various products are being sold through TCB trucks to "10 million low-income people across the country" to help meet their needs—one cannot help but wonder if he is underselling the risks. If the heart-rending scenes unfolding on Dhaka's streets are anything to go by, large numbers of people are clearly falling through the cracks. Apart from a routine pledge of "strict punishment" for unscrupulous traders manipulating market prices, we've yet to hear of any concrete action.

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