Nutritious diet is a luxury for many in Bangladesh as rising costs eat into their earnings

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics puts the country’s per capita income at Tk 241,470, which means a citizen earns more than Tk 20,000 every month, but that’s not the case for Nazmul Hossian as rising costs bite into his living standards.

Kazi Nafia Rahman, Staff Correspondent Staff Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 20 July 2022, 07:37 PM
Updated : 20 July 2022, 07:56 PM

A driver at a private company in Dhaka's Tejgaon, he works for a monthly pay of Tk 9,000. Nazmul earns Tk 15,000 in total, including wages from other sources.

Commodity prices have jumped regularly, but Nazmul’s wage has not matched the rise in the past six years, and he is struggling to meet the cost of living for his family of four. Like many, they are forced to consume poor-quality diets by a combination of high food prices and low incomes.

Government ministers claim people’s purchasing power has increased manifolds, but Nazmul has been forced to cut down on his daily budget. Having meat or even eggs on the platter is a dream to his family now as they survive on rice with lentils, mashed potato and vegetables.

They have been chopping nutrients off the menu. People can barely access food to meet dietary needs or the nutritional quality of those calories.

"Now, we've to choose food that helps us only to survive," Nazmul said.

Consumers have been feeling the heat over the spiralling price of daily commodities in Bangladesh for a long time. A sharp price hike in the market triggered by the war between Russia and Ukraine has made it 'unbearable' for low and middle-income people, leaving no option before them other than compromising the quality of food.

PRICE RISES

The prices of almost all daily essentials other than locally produced onions, imported garlics and gingers have increased on the price list issued by the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, through which the government has been trying to support the poor with sales at subsidised prices.

According to the Jul 7 market price list issued by the TCB, the price of thin grain rice has increased by 15 percent in a year while the price of coarse grain rice rose by 4 to 9 percent in Bangladesh.

People are paying 32 percent more for atta (whole wheat flour) in the open market and 52 percent more for packets of atta. The price of maida (refined flour) rose by 51 percent to 54 percent.

Many families in Bangladesh buy the cheap vegetables only because they cannot afford the expensive one.

The price of lentils has increased by 26 to 44 percent, mug pulse by 5.41 percent, broiler chicken by 9 percent, egg by 15 percent, potato by 19 percent, sugar by16 percent and salt by 1.5 percent.

The BBS published June inflation data on Tuesday, according to which Bangladeshi households are facing the most severe pressure from rising living costs in nine years.

The inflation hit 7.56 percent last month, up from 5.64 percent a year ago, and from 7.42 percent in May, despite government measures to keep prices of goods down amid a global hike due to the Russia-Ukraine war. 

THE COST

Nazmul, who is now in his 40s, said he rented a flat at Mirpur section-2 and sublet two rooms to adjust the rising cost of living with his income. His family is living in the living and dining places which cost them Tk 3,500 per month.

The school and private tuition fees for his seventh-grader son, a student of National Bangla High School, cost Tk 4,000 per month. Nazmul has to pay for his daughter's kindergarten school and an Arabic teacher as well.

"My salary usually evaporates after these spendings. Some extra income sources help me to buy food. My wife also supports me with her income from sewing."

Nazmul also explained how the growing gap between his income and living costs is affecting the family’s diet.

"We used to drink milk sometimes in the past. Now we can’t afford it anymore. We've also stopped eating eggs and now we're having fish twice instead of five days a week."

"Pulses, mashed potatoes and vegetables are on our regular menu. Prices of vegetables are also high now. So, we mostly buy cheap ones."

Nazmul sensed that his family members are not getting enough food and it can cause malnutrition, but he sees no way to get out of the crisis. 

When healthy items are unaffordable, it is impossible for people to avoid malnutrition and diet-related diseases like anaemia or diabetes.

“The situation has made my life a living hell,” Nazmul said.

"My daughter likes lychee but I managed to buy the fruit just once this year. She enjoyed them all by herself. My son also likes mango, but I haven't bought the fruit this year as my pocket is empty after paying for unexpected expenses."

Nazmul said it's difficult for him to do another job or return to the village as he owns no family property. Moving to another company without good facilities will not solve the problem.

People buy leftover party food in Dhaka.

He now plans to send his son to a polytechnic college to get him involved in work during his study.

"If he doesn't work, how can we manage in the future? Everything including the cost of education will rise but what about the income? I know many people who hasn't got a pay rise over the last few years." 

Many people like Nazmul earn less than Tk 10,000 per month. Many of them sent their family members to villages due to the widening difference between their income and living costs. Some of them survive on the money they get from their family members living in the village.

According to a study released by the UN on Jul 6, a person in Bangladesh needs $3.064 to have healthy food in a day, but 121.11 million people, or 73.5 percent of the population, do not have the ability to earn this money.

From 2019 to 2021, 18.8 million Bangladeshis, or 11.4 percent of the population, suffered from malnutrition, the study said.

In line with the study’s account, a person needs Tk 26,000 a month to have a healthy diet.

But Sumon Ali earns Tk 9,200 per month from his sewing section job at a garment factory in Dhaka's Mirpur. He is struggling to meet the food demand of his wife and a one and a half years old child after paying house rent. 

"It was possible to manage a meal earlier with rice, mashed potato and lentils. But the prices of those items have also gone up. What will we eat?" he asked.

Sumon said he had reduced eating eggs and fish due to the price hike. His family can afford to eat fish twice a week.

"I’ve forgotten when was the last time I bought beef. I only buy broiler chicken now for my wife."

Sumon said the family is in danger now as his wife left her job after giving birth to the child. He needs to ask for money from his parents instead of helping them out. 

THE EXTENT OF THE DANGER

Many families in Bangladesh have stopped eating eggs, meat and milk due to rising cost of living.

The nutritionists advise people to take food every day from six different groups - carbohydrate, protein, fat, vegetable, fruit and water.

"An adult needs 50 grams of protein per day, so does a child. Younger children need one and a half grams less than that," said Dr Khaleda Islam, director of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at Dhaka University.

"A person needs 400 grams of carbohydrate, 300 grams of vegetables, 100 grams of fruit, 40 grams of fat and 50 grams of pulses per day."

Protein is now the biggest deficit due to inconsistent price increases compared to income, Dr Khaleda said.

She warned of several physical difficulties which emerge from a weakened immune system if nutritional deficiencies persist.

Children suffer from weight loss and height issues due to the lack of nutritious food. The problems go away if a child resumes eating nutritious food. If malnutrition continues, the child falls short and the brain does not develop properly.

Malnutrition causes diarrhoea, pneumonia, skin diseases, breathing problems and a tendency to feel tired in children.

Malnutrition in childhood leads to intellectual problems in the long run. It also affects the performance of intelligence tests.

Adults suffer from anaemia, high blood pressure, diabetes, night blindness, iodine deficiency, and kidney, respiratory and heart problems due to malnutrition.

Pregnant women give birth to underweight babies with health concerns for both. 

"The low and middle-income people cannot afford those foods hit hard by the price hike. It was said in the past that everyone can have pulses, vegetables and eggs due to their low prices but this is not true anymore. The poor are not able to afford eggs, broiler chicken, and pulses anymore. As a result, their protein needs are not being met."