Import of potato in the peak harvesting season! This has never happened in living memory. More than 60 importers have received government permission to import a total of 94,000 tonnes of potato evidently from India. Already the first consignments have arrived, reportedly, to have some positive impact on the volatile market. Dinajpur district where the consignments of potato entered through its port land Hili has recorded a price drop of Tk10-15 a kilogram as a consequence. But this price level is 110 per cent higher compared to this time around the previous year. With more truckloads of potato arriving from India, the price is expected to come down even further.
While this development is expected to stabilise potato market to the relief of the consumers just before the month of Ramadan, there is certainly a need for clarifying the situation that has prompted the government to go for this unusual move. Then, it has not been the only case; import of onion in its on-going harvesting period also leaves many people confused. So far the only explanation for the preemptive government move has been put forward is the damage caused to potato cultivation in Rangpur and Rajshahi by cyclonic storms in October and November. Now the question is, how far this natural adversity is expected to affect the production and what exactly will be the shortfall. The agriculture ministry set a target of producing 11.6 million tonnes of potato on 4.6 million hectares of land. Currently, the country has a demand for 10 million tonnes of potato. Last year the country, according to the ministry, produced 10.4 million tonnes against its projected target of 11 million tonnes. That is enough for the country's need. Then why the government had to give permission for import of 1.0 million tonnes of potato to importers who ended up importing 80,000 tonnes between June and October begs a clear answer. The Bangladesh Cold Storage Association (BCSA), however, claimed that potato production was to the tune of 9.0 million tonnes last year.
This is clear evidence either of statistical jugglery or of manipulation of market by potato traders in collusion with cold storage owners. The same happened in case of onion---production was claimed by the agriculture ministry to be 3.45 million tonnes last year against the demand for 2.6 million tonnes. Then at least there is an excuse for waste of onion, a perishable item, but the same is not equally true for potato. The estimates of the ministry and the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) are always at variance but even if their conservative figures were right, Bangladesh did not have to import potato and onion on such a scale.
The case of potato is particularly intriguing. Here is a crop that had suffered price slump for at least a couple of decades. The country started exporting potato to Russia and a few other countries because of its production surfeit. At times irate farmers fed their cattle with surplus potato out of frustration because of its throwaway price in the domestic market. Last year's situation was definitely the result of a combination of both inflated estimate and market manipulation by trading syndicate. Pervasive machinations have of late been taken to a new high to fleece consumers not only of potato and onion but also of most of the essential commodities. The preemtive move by the government may produce the desired results only if it is followed up by strict monitoring and supervision of market.
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