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Hunger stalks millions as inflation soars in Bangladesh

Impoverished communities like the largely Christian ethnic Santals are paying a heavy price as a result of economic woes
Ethnic Santal men are seen at a temporary shelter in a village in Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh following their eviction from their ancestral land in 2016. Santals are among the millions of poor hit hard by inflation and energy price hikes in Bangladesh

Ethnic Santal men are seen at a temporary shelter in a village in Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh following their eviction from their ancestral land in 2016. Santals are among the millions of poor hit hard by inflation and energy price hikes in Bangladesh. (File photo: UCA News)

Published: March 30, 2024 04:08 AM GMT
Updated: March 30, 2024 04:20 AM GMT

Lazarus Tudu, 55, a Catholic, collapsed while on his motorcycle heading to the local bus station in the Ghoraghat area of northern Bangladesh’s Dinajpur district on the morning of March 9.

His son was scheduled to join a Church-run boarding school in Dinajpur town on that day, but instead, he returned to his village to bury his father.

Family members said Tudu was a low-paid employee in a local cooperative bank. He had been struggling to fund the education of his daughter who studies in college. Like many local Santals, Tudu had to borrow money from others to run the family.

In the afternoon of the same day, Kerina Hansda, 52, also a member of the ethnic minority Santal tribe like Tudu, died after collapsing in the yard of her home in Govindaganj, in neighboring Gaibandha district.

Her family members said Hansda used to work for a development organization but lost her job a few years back. She had been stressed out and mentally unstable for some time due to huge debts.

As her husband, a farmer, did not have a decent income they had to borrow money to keep their three-member family afloat.

The family had borrowed 400,000 taka (US$3,645) to invest in their farmland due to a sharp rise in production costs.

The deaths of Tudu and Hansda were among several in the largely impoverished Christian Santal community in a week, a local leader confirmed.

“I knew what caused these deaths — stress and anxiety,’ said Philemon Baske, a Santal Catholic and community leader in Govindaganj.

“I know the mental pressure they have been under over soaring living costs,” he said.

“A silent famine is unfolding in rural Bangladesh. People are exhausted, starving and suffering,” he added.

Santals in the region are bracing for the worst after suffering immensely due to economic hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and impacts of the Ukraine War, Baske said, referring to a government decision to have another round of electricity and gas price hikes from February.

Earlier energy price hikes in 2022 and 2023 triggered inflation. They drove up the prices of daily essentials that pushed millions of poor people like the Santals to the brink in the Muslim-majority country.

About a quarter of Bangladesh’s more than 170 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

The average inflation rate has not dipped below 9 percent since it jumped to a record high of 9.52 percent in August 2022, according to Bangladesh Bank.

In January, the inflation rate shot up to 9.84 percent, owing largely to rises in power, gas and fuel prices over the past years.

Analysts say another round of energy price hikes would hit the poor very hard.

“And this is happening while people’s real income has stagnated,” said Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think tank.

If real income does not increase along with inflation, he explained, people’s food intake drops as they buy and eat less food.

“Sustained high inflation with stagnated real income has a long-term health impact,” said Rahman.

About 24 percent or some 40 million people in Bangladesh were food-insecure, the World Food Program (WFP) found in a survey last August.

These people did not have enough or the right kind of food to lead a healthy and active life, according to the survey conducted after power prices were increased three times in quick succession.

The WFP survey also found that 71 percent of surveyed households were most concerned about food-price inflation and 74 percent reported buying small quantities and less expensive food.

Over three-quarters of the households borrowed money or sold assets or became trapped in debt to buy food, the survey said.

Last March, research group South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) surveyed 1,600 low-income households in Bangladesh and found over 70 percent had reduced their food consumption, particularly meat, fish and eggs while opting for low-quality food.

To cope with the inflation, households applied various mechanisms such as changing food habits, borrowing money, spending less on health, education, and clothing, and breaking into their savings, the survey said.

The SANEM study found that 90 percent of poor households had changed their food habits while 75 percent depended on borrowing from various microcredit and other informal sources at high-interest rates, potentially falling into a debt trap.

The results of the two surveys were reflected in a study conducted by the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) last year.

About 37.7 million people in Bangladesh faced moderate to severe food insecurity, said the survey released in March.

“The actual situation prevailing among people with limited employment opportunities or insecure jobs is beyond our imagination,” said Farha Tanzim Titil, who teaches economics at the state-run Islamic University.

“There are people who are exhausted or do not have any savings to resort to or lack the credentials to borrow,” she said.

About 90 percent of the nation’s labor force is employed in informal sectors like agriculture, daily labor, rickshaw pulling and transport work, which offer them no job security or benefits, economists say.

They are among the hardest hit when inflation is prolonged and energy prices shoot up, they say.

The government’s low-cost food-selling scheme known as Open Market Sales (OMS) has faced criticism for being too inadequate and lacking in presence across the country.

The CPD think-tank estimates that the latest energy price hike in February will increase household expenses by 9.4 percent compared to last November.

Energy price hikes will see a rise in energy costs of small and medium businesses of 9.12 percent, 9.71 percent in offices, 10 percent in industries and an 11 percent increase in irrigation in agriculture.

Santal leader Philemon Baske said higher energy and fuel prices have made agriculture costlier.

He said a 50-kg bag of urea fertilizer now costs 1,300 taka compared to 950 taka in March last year.

Similarly, a 50-kg bag of triple superphosphate (TSP) now costs 1,900 taka, up from 1,350 taka.

High production costs have forced many Santals to skip meals to save money to make up for cultivation, he said.

The reduction in food consumption can be fatal.

Six days before Tudu and Hansda died, another Santal, Peter Murmu, 55, died at his home after returning from tending his field.

Murmu had asked for a glass of water and said he was not feeling well. He collapsed and died before he could drink it.

“I know what life was like for them,” said Baske. “They could not bear it anymore.”

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