Rumours rub salt in Bangladesh’s healing onion wound

  • Senior Correspondent, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2019-11-20 03:51:26 BdST

Still smarting from the onion price shock, Syeda Farzana Zaman, a resident of Dhaka’s Dhanmondi, dashed to the market on Tuesday morning after hearing from her house help that  salt price was rising.

Salt was already out of stock at the groceries while a super store assured her of arrival on Wednesday.

But a housewife at Nikunja was all smiles as she managed to buy 20kg salt for stockpiling in the afternoon.

Many like her bought several kilograms of salt, fearing a price spiral, and triggering a real but brief supply squeeze that helped rogue traders charge up to Tk 100 for a kg of salt in place of Tk 35 only.

Similar scenarios were reported from across Bangladesh prompting the government, which was beginning to breathe easy after skyrocketing onion prices, to assure the people that there was enough stock of the cooking mineral.

The salt market became volatile when the government is flying in onion from abroad to cool down prices that rose to as high as Tk 250 a kg from Tk 40 two months ago before starting to drop earlier this week.  

“I’ve already told you that we are in huge trouble over onion,” Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi told a press conference in Dhaka, noting that the government itself was airlifting onion from abroad.

It was right that onion prices were high in the international market as well, but the situation in the domestic market “would not have been this worse”, he said, had unscrupulous businesses not hiked its prices so high.

Speaking about salt, he said he had asked officials to jail and fine unscrupulous traders if they sold salt at higher prices.

He urged all not to pay heed to any rumours. “The industries ministry control salt trade. [Rogue traders] are taking an unfair advantage. There is no reason to pay heed to any rumours.”

A total of 650,000 tonnes of salt is in stock in the country, according to Munshi.

Haider Ali, a grocer at Mohakhali, accused customers of “excesses” over salt price.

“People are already agitated by onion prices. So the rumours about a salt crisis gripped the market easily,” the trader said.

He said a customer paid him Tk 100 for 2kg of salt without even asking about the price, which was actually Tk 35 a kg.

“When I told him not to panic, he said he was anxious as he could not find any salt in three to four other shops in the neighbourhood,” Haider said.

Additional DIG of Police Mohammad Tabarak Ullah, who is in charge of the national emergency helpline 999, said they received a huge number of calls related to salt price.

Customers scrambling to buy salt to stockpile at a shop in Dhaka's South Bansree on Tuesday as rumours of a price hike spread.

Customers scrambling to buy salt to stockpile at a shop in Dhaka's South Bansree on Tuesday as rumours of a price hike spread.

“Everyone wanted to know whether salt price was really going up. We’ve told them that there is enough stock of salt in the country,” he said.

The rumour of a salt price hike spread in Sylhet, Habiganj, Gopalganj, Thakurgaon and Netrakona districts on Monday evening following weeks of eye-watering onion prices due to a supply crunch.

Panicked consumers started stockpiling salt, giving rogue traders the opportunity to charge extra across the country, including Dhaka.

Customers reportedly scuffled at different places in the capital in attempt to buy salt for stockpiling before the rumoured price hike.

Adhara Bagchi, a student of Khulna University, said she saw long queues of people to buy salt at the shops in the city’s Bara Bazar market, even at Tk 100 a kg.

Police detained several people on charges of spreading rumours, she said.

bdnews24.com correspondents from 13 districts outside the capital reported that the authorities had fined over 50 traders and arrested 23 for charging extra for salt.

In Dhaka, mobile courts punished 74 traders.

‘CONSPIRACY’

The government said in separate statements that a quarter with vested interests was trying to destabilise the market by spreading rumours.

Businesses said they believed the situation was created to put the government in a tight spot.  

The Ministry of Industries said in a statement in the afternoon: “It appears that a quarter with vested interests is spreading rumours to make windfall profits by manipulating salt prices. The public is requested not to get confused.”

Customers thronged shops at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka to buy salt on Tuesday following rumours of a price hike.

Customers thronged shops at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka to buy salt on Tuesday following rumours of a price hike.

The Bangladesh Small & Cottage Industries Corporation, or BSCIC, has opened a control room at its headquarters to take salt-related queries on 02-9573505 and 01715223949.

Later, in another statement, the government vowed to take tough legal action against any person who spreads rumours about salt amid panic buying.

A quarter is out to spread rumours in Bangladesh and there are “evil attempts” to spread rumours about the supply of salt, according to the statement.

It noted the industries ministry already assured people of enough salt in stock and new products are expected to arrive in December.

“So, there is no lack of salt and no possibilities of any shortage,” the statement said.

“If any person or group tries to spread rumours about salt or anything else on social media or in any other way, they will face tough legal steps,” it added.

Customers thronged shops at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka to buy salt on Tuesday following rumours of a price hike.

Customers thronged shops at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka to buy salt on Tuesday following rumours of a price hike.

ACI and Molla Salt, leading companies in packaged salt industry, said they did not see any reason behind price hike as there was no shortage of supplies.

“After onion, rumours [over salt] have been spread to embarrass the government,” Molla Salt General Manager Abdul Mannan said.

Syed Alamgir, director of consumer products at ACI Group, said, “Panic is being spread for no reason. A quarter is trying to make some extra profits by fooling the people with rumours.”

Mohammad Hossain, secretary of the Teknaf Salt Farmers and Traders’ Welfare Association, said the stock of salt only in the Upazila in Cox’s Bazar were enough to meet the demand of the entire country for six months.