Economists fear a food crisis arising out of the coronavirus pandemic because of inadequate storage capacity at the government level.
As much as 21 lakh tonnes of food have been ordered to be stored in the Boro season. This move came after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's directives in light of the fear of global recession and starvation.
But where this food will be stored has not been decided yet.
Warehouses in the country under the food directorate can store 19.5 lakh tonnes. The government now has over 15 lakh tonnes in storage. So, a big portion of the storage capacity is already full.
The government has so far distributed rice among 2.77 crore people due to the coronavirus crisis. Under the food-friendly programme, 50 lakh families have got 30kg rice each priced at Tk10 per kg. The Trading Corporation of Bangladesh is also distributing affordable rice.
Even so, not all the poor have obtained relief, and are therefore in a state of misery.
According to a research by the Power and Participation Research Centre and the Brac Institute of Governance and Development, 27 percent of the people are not getting food three times a day. The organisations have recommended food and financial assistance for people who have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic. That isin addition to the need for assistance for 3.82 crore pre-existing poor people.
On the other hand, research by the Centre for Policy Dialogue has found that at least 6.84 crore people need emergency assistance.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, each person needs 387 grams of food daily, including wheat and rice. So, at least 7.94 lakh tonnes of food are needed per month for 6.84 crore poor people. Overall, the government has the capacity of storing food for poor people that will last only two months and a half.
Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies former director general Mustafa K Mujeri said there remainsa possibility of growing2 crore tonnes of rice in this Boro season.
So, around 10 percent of the production will be collected at the government level, he said.
"On the other hand, farmers are forced to sell rice at lower prices for several reasons, such as the pressure for paying for paddy cutting and thrashing in addition to paying dues related to fertilisers, irrigation and cultivation as growing rice gets costly in the Boro season. Taking advantage of this, wholesalers, warehouse owners and mill owners sell paddy at lower prices and rice at higher prices. With the coronavirus rendering farmers even more helpless, mill owners will store more. There is also a possibility of a food crisis.
"According to the current capacity, the government can store food for the total number of poor people at a degree that will last a few months. Therefore, in this situation, farmers should be given extra time for repaying old loans and also obtaining fresh loans," he said.
Mujeri said, "If farmers get money, perhaps they will not be forced to sell paddy at lower prices. So, food prices will remain stable for the whole year. Farmers will also get the price for their produce."
According to the Director General of the Food Directorate,Sarwar Mahmud, "Rice is being sold for Tk 10 per kg under the Open Market Sales (OMS) system in the country. It is being distributed under different relief operations. This is why warehouses are getting empty."
"Old warehouses are being renovated quickly so that food grains can be stored there. As a result, it will be possible to store some extra food," he added.
It has been said that the government's food storage capacity has not been expanding due to mismanagement in project implementation and negligence by officials.
In 2014, a project was undertaken to build eight steel food storages of 5.5 lakh tonnes' capacity. The project work is supposed to be finished in June but progress so far has been less than half.
Of the Tk1,919.97 crore project, Tk955.04 crore was spent until February.
A report by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division noted that it would be difficult to finish the project in time due to unwanted sluggishness. This will cause a loss of Tk2,000 crore from the government's exchequer, the report estimated.
Md Gaziur Rahman, who had been the director of the project since the beginning, recently went into post-retirement leave. He said, "Less than half of the fund required for the project at the formulation stage was allocated. The future of the project depends on a disbursement of the extra $200 million promised by the World Bank."
In 2013, a project was approved to build new food storages of 1.05 lakh tonnes' capacity across the country. It was supposed to be finished by June 2016. After two amendments, the deadline has been extended until June this year.
But the Tk395.88 lakh project will not be completed because the progress is only 81 percent.
Md Moshiur Rahman, who had been the director of the project since May 2016 until being transferred to another project recently, said, "Tender for the project could not be called as there was no skilled manpower to participate in electronic tender. After I joined, all work, including calling tenders, was speeded up. Although project work is almost at the end, work has now stopped because of the coronavirus crisis."