Food price protests might prolong Bangladesh emergency

July 11th, 2008 - 8:52 am ICT by IANS  

By Ahmed Fazl
Dhaka, July 11 (DPA) Simmering anger over mounting food prices threatened to spark renewed protests in impoverished Bangladesh that might force its caretaker government to delay lifting emergency rule, analysts warned. Discontent over the failure of the interim government to check surging prices of the staple rice and other commodities turned into violent street protests in April in the capital, Dhaka, although under the 18-month state of emergency, protests, rallies and public gatherings are banned.

“The costs of cooking oil, flour, pulses and onions doubled over the past year, and there is no indication of a respite from soaring prices,” said Mustafizur Rahman of the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue think tank.

The double-digit inflation has put rice beyond the reach of low-income families, and prices in the impoverished country of about 140 million people were unlikely to fall soon although the Agriculture Ministry announced bumper harvests of pre-monsoon rice and winter potatoes, which were expected to offset some of the crop losses caused by repeated flooding and last year’s Cyclone Sidr.

Amid rising demands for the withdrawal of emergency rule, authorities approved a national budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which began this month. It forecast 6-percent growth in the gross domestic product and incorporated a 20-percent pay hike for government employees and funds to help the ultra-poor.

However, analyst Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, chief of the Bangladesh Economic Association, said he has doubts that the country would reach the budget targets because of looming political uncertainty.

Quoting from a recent report on poverty, Ahmad said that in less than a decade, about 10 million Bangladeshis have joined the ranks of the existing 30 million who live on less than $1 a day.

Mirza Azizul Islam, who heads the Finance Ministry in the caretaker regime, announced the budget over state-run radio and television network last month, vowing to bring down inflation, which the government has measured at 9 percent.

The economy was expected to expand by more than 6 percent in the current fiscal year because of strong exports and record harvests of cereals, Islam insisted.

Bangladesh is being ruled by a military-backed interim government that was appointed by President Iajuddin Ahmad and took office in January 2007 in the wake of political violence that claimed more than a score of lives and pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

The caretaker authority jailed about 200 politicians, including former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and some former bureaucrats in a crackdown on corruption.

The interim government immediately imposed a state of emergency and cancelled parliamentary polls that were to be held Jan 22, 2007.

The government, led by former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed, promised a free and credible general election before the end of this year, but the country’s two largest political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have demanded the lifting of the state of emergency and the scrapping of all corruption charges against Hasina and Zia.

Hasina is on parole so she can receive medical treatment abroad while authorities are preparing a similar arrangement for Zia to leave the country.

The political parties have threatened to boycott the upcoming polls and challenge emergency rule if their demands are not met.

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