People will have to pay extra for essential commodities – despite sufficient quantities of imports through the country's largest port in Chattogram – due to a crisis in the delivery system amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the items, imported to meet the demand of the upcoming holy month of Ramadan, have been stuck at port yards. As a result, there is a shortage of products at markets across the country.
Businesspeople fear the supply shortage may push up the retail prices of the products and create a massive crisis during Ramadan.
Product delivery from the port has declined due to the shortage of transport workers and vehicles, as well as slow revenue collection.
It has created container congestion at the port, preventing the offloading of products from ships due to a shortage of space. Thus the congestion of ships is also increasing.
According to Chattogram Port's data, between 4,500 and 5,000 containers are delivered, per day, during normal times. The number dropped to 1,000 at the end of March because of the Covid-19 pandemic – thus creating a huge pile of containers. It has also disrupted the operational activities of the port.
Abul Bashar Chowdhury, chairman of BSM Group – one of the country's largest importers of essential products – said, "The imports have continued as per the demand – even amid the coronavirus crisis."
However, he said, it is taking a much longer time to get the products released from the port – increasing the cost of the imported products.
"Eventually, it is making an impact on the market and the consumers ultimately suffer because of it. If the supply chain is not fixed immediately, after a few days it will be difficult to keep the supply to the market normal. People will not get products to buy at markets," added Bashar.
Mahbubul Alam, president of Chattogram Chambers of Commerce and Industries, said, "The port has come to a standstill. Importers cannot receive deliveries even if their products are rotting. That is why the products imported for Ramadan cannot be supplied to the market. It has created a risk of price increases for essential items."
To keep the port functional and the market under control, he suggested identifying the problems and taking an initiative to resolve the issues case by case.
He said they had written a letter to the National Board of Revenue to speed up the revenue collection at the port so that businesses can take the delivery of their products, freeing spaces for new arrivals.
Several importers said that they had brought in products for Ramadan, amid a number of difficulties, but they were unable to receive deliveries due to the pandemic.
The port authority has, meanwhile, waived the store charge for those who will take the delivery amid the ongoing countrywide shutdown. However, it has failed to speed up product delivery.
Port sources said nearly 15,000 tonnes of chickpeas were imported from Australia between March 1 and April 9.
Chattogram customs sources said due to the countrywide shutdown from March 26, the product delivery dropped by around 70 percent.
Md Fakhrul Alam, commissioner of the Chattogram Customs House, said the revenue collection is underway on a limited scale with only 20 percent of its staff due to the shutdown.
"According to the instructions of the National Board of Revenue, delivery of imported emergency food items, fruits, drugs and industries' raw materials is ongoing," he added.
The commissioner said the revenue collection for other products, – including mobile handsets and furniture – remains halted.
According to the transportation department at the port, 1,031 containers were delivered as of 8am on April 11 – when there were more than 45,000 containers at different yards against the total capacity of around 49,000 containers.
Containers occupied 92 percent of the port yards. However, the yard needs at least 15 percent of its space to be free to maintain regular operations at the port.
Meanwhile, importers have stumbled into trouble because of perishable goods. Due to a lack of space at the port, reefer containers cannot be offloaded on the yard. This puts imported fruits, frozen fish, baby food, and raw materials for medicine at the risk of rotting.
Port sources said a radiation test under the science and technology ministry is a must for delivering products imported in reefer containers. However, the test cannot be conducted now as the department concerned remains closed amid the shutdown.
In such a situation, customs cannot collect revenue, thus the pile of reefer containers is also expanding every day.
Enamul Karim, director (traffic) at the port, said, the average stay time for a ship at the port is 2.6 days every month. However, the time may increase.
Omar Faruq, Chattogram Port Authority secretary, said the normal operations of the port have been hampered due to the coronavirus crisis. "We are trying to overcome the problem."
Shafiqul Alam Jewel, vice-president of Bangladesh Shipping Agents Association, said, "We are facing some problems due to the unloading of containers by rationing. We have to pay fines for increasing the stay time of ships at the Chattogram port."
Meanwhile, the situation at Khatunganj, the country's largest wholesale market for commodities, has changed. The market, which usually remains crowded with trucks, is now almost empty. Despite a massive demand of essentials ahead of Ramadan, the products are not supplied to the different places of the country due to a lack of transport.
Solaiman Badsha, former president of Chaktai Khatunganj Babosayi Somity, said, "The supply of products from Khatunganj has fallen by 80 percent due to transport shortage. The prices of the essential commodities have started increasing in the gap of just a week."
The price of chickpeas has increased from Tk60 to Tk62, pulses from Tk80 to Tk88 and lentils from Tk65 to Tk78 per kilogramme.