The vitalunaddressed issue of price control

A party that swept to victory some eight years ago almost by singularly promising the pushing down of the prices of essentials consumption goods, is now seen failing in delivering on its promise. It appears that the Awami league led alliance has not got its act together– although more than eight years have passed–in acting with real dedication to redeem its the then main election time pledge to the people.
Whatever may have been the incumbent government’s achievements in diverse areas in governing the country, it appears to be in a mismatch between what it said it would assuredly do on going to power and the way things are actually perceived by the consumers of essential goods. In fact, the millions and millions of consumers of modest means in the country are suffering from a sense of ‘deceit’ in the area of price control.
Previously, people were groaning from relentless price rises of essential commodities for some seven years under two successive non Awami League led governments. Specially, the unchecked price rises under the caretaker government for two years even reversed the poverty reduction rate. Some 20 to 30 million people who earlier had an existence above the poverty line, went below the line to join the ranks of the poor in this period. A similar or greater number were sensed to be on such a downhill path as their purchasing power shrank over these years. Thus, it was nothing unusual that price control was at the heart of things during the national elections on December 2008.
For a brief period after the election, considerable price decline of essentials were noted. But the same had more to do with substantial decrease in the imported prices of commodities ranging from fuel oils to cooking oils. The importers only were obliged to pass on down the benefits of these largely decreased prices to their end consumers in Bangladesh. Government hardly exercised any role in such decreases. The same were somewhat automatic.
The government’s role in price management became relevant again after that period. It was at that time that the government should have swung into action with plenty of determination to prove with deeds and not words that it meant what it promised about keeping prices under a tight leash.
Even the prices of ordinary rice consumed by the common people are shooting up without the least reasonable ground for such a happening as the country reaped record harvests of boro rice on the higher side in recent years and the government and private millers have a good stock of foodgrain in their silos and warehouses respectively. The stocks of rice in the country are not too bad. The stocks of other kitchen commodities like onions, pulses and potatoes are also considered to be reasonable. But defeating the economic principle of plentiful supplies easing demands and lowering prices, the price juggernaut keeps on rolling over people proving irrefutably that the syndicates are there and operating as usual to keep prices artificially high.
It needs underlining that the government could soon be thrust into a credibility crisis on different grounds. But the greatest threat to its credibility is noted already from the sweeping promises made by its potentates in the area of keeping costs of living bearable for the people and then doing nothing of substance about it. People will not buy the contention that government lacks laws and regulations to use against the offenders. This would be a complete travesty of truth. There is no legal vacuum that gives any leeway to hoarders and profiteers. There are specific laws against hoarding and profiteering. Besides, the elaborate Consumers’ Protection Act was passed two years ago. All of these should enable the government to move against the syndicates without any great difficulty. What is missing seems to be the political resolve to do so.
Government can no more avoid responsibility by saying that price trends are the features of a free market economy. For even the most free markets in developed countries are also considerably and actually restrained by laws that mandatorily require competition and restrict the formation of syndicates and the like. Government in such free market economies also allow government to intervene as and when necessary to achieve price normalization of essential commodities to prevent hardships of common people. But nothing of these things are seen in the Bangladesh context.
The state-owned Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) can be a powerful tool at the disposal of the government if the latter really wishes to achieve something positive in the sphere of price control . TCB was created in the mid seventies inspired by the objective of importing essential goods and selling them at fair and subsidized prices. The idea was to create an alternative market that the non affluent could access within their purchasing power and its operation would put pressure on the unscrupulous ones in the normal markets to reduce prices as well to remain competitive with TCB.
But the TCB was gradually turned impotent over the years from what seemed to be purposeful governmental policies to that end to pave the way for the unbridled ascendancy of the free market philosophy. But the pursuit of this policy without ensuring proper regulation has meant only severe exploitation of the consumers .
The government must realize the need to reactivate TCB fully as it becomes more and more clear that the practice of market economy without some form of governmental intervention, at least on different occasions or as the need arises, is not practical in the context of Bangladesh. Prices of goods in everyday use have been rising without a pause in the last one year.
The TCB should be made fully functional with sufficient political resolve. It is alleged –not casually– that unholy business interests have been playing a part in keeping the TCB deliberately on death throes so that nothing could stand in the way of their rip-off of the helpless consumers. Top figures in the administration have been blamed for their underhand role in keeping the TCB in a practically disabled state so that the price manipulators or so called businesses could do whatever they liked in fleecing the consumers.