EVERY day, the grim faces of the farmers -- especially in the country's northern districts -- are shown in the various TV channels during news time. They appear to be in desperation to tell newsmen about what is looming as a survival issue for them : their doubts that they will be unable to cultivate irri-boro rice successfully in the on-going season. The time for such cultivation is receding fast. But they remain gripped with basic problems of not being able to sow the paddy seedlings even in many cases, let alone transplant them in properly watered fields because there is no diesel for them to run pumps to irrigate the fields. Diesel is scarce and its price is high -- beyond the reach of many farmers. The same is the situation in relation to another vital input, fertiliser. Farmers have been queuing up for long hours in front of the shops of fertiliser dealers to have only a small part of their demand met. In both cases, it was reported that diesel and fertilisers are being smuggled out on a large scale from Bangladesh. The diesel has been going mainly to India and fertiliser goes to India and Myanmar.
The energy adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, made a rather scathing remark that smuggling and not any shortage of diesel was the main cause of the diesel crisis. He provided statistics on that occasion about how adequate stocks of fuel oils were there and that the same were sent to different places of the country. He specially drew attention to much greater amounts of diesel being demanded than is the usual at this time of the year and stated that this higher demand has been also met by the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) in response to criticisms that a supply crisis of diesel exists.
There is no reason to take the adviser's words lightly. He has effectively countered suggestion about a supply problem by releasing figures of the quantities of diesel and other fuel oils that had been sent to various depots and the supplies seemed to be in excess of the demand. Why then the farmers have not been getting diesel? Why they have to pay unusually high prices for what they get ? The answer lies in smuggling as had been plainly reiterated by the adviser. Not only from smuggling, the wheeler-dealers are making double profits. First, by hoarding and creating artificial scarcity inside Bangladesh to unreasonably increase diesel price. Secondly, they are taking advantage of the price differential of diesel between India and Bangladesh to gain by smuggling it out to India where its price is at least Taka 18 more than in Bangladesh.
After first telling the press about the smuggling, the energy adviser went on a tour of the affected districts. After his return, he discussed with the press how he saw Indian trucks at Hili and other places that come to dispose off Indian export cargoes to Bangladesh but are also engaged in smuggling activities on the side. Reportedly, they arrive with only a small part of their fuel tanks filled with diesel. They fill up their tanks fully once they are inside Bangladesh . Each truck has a capacity in its tank to take 300 to 400 litres of diesel. Some trucks have double such tanks. Thus, huge quantities of diesel in this manner get smuggled out by some 300 Indian trucks on average that arrive every day.
Reportedly, organised groups backed up by influential political activists in connivance with a section of the BDR and the police facilitate the smuggling. Ansars on duty at the Benapole land port arrested four Bangladeshis last Thursday as they were busy filling up Indian trucks with diesel. They were found out to be members of the youth front of the ruling party and allegedly enjoyed a hand in glove like relationship with the district administration, the BDR and the police. Another report in a vernacular daily focused on the smuggling out of thousands of litres of diesel at Mahishakunda in the Daulatpur upazilla. The farmers of the district are desperate to get diesel that get smuggled out at dawn time through the cooperation of a section of the local BDR. Cyclists come across the border from India, unhindered, and leave with plastic containers filled with diesel attached to their cycles. When a company commander of the BDR was asked by the reporter about this, his nonchalant answer was that it was impossible to stop smuggling of any commodity.
Thus, the energy adviser was not wrong when he said that the diesel crisis is not a supply induced problem. It is more an administrative problem, a failure of the home ministry to use the BDR to stop smuggling out of this vital agro-input. But, so far, a false conception has been built up as if the BPC was responsible for the diesel crisis by not keeping its adequate stocks in the country or not keeping the pipeline of diesel flowing. As it is, enough stocks of fuel oils are there in the country and another 150,000 tons of the same have arrived from Kuwait. Thus, there is no reason to feel uncomfortable about the availability of the fuels. What the government needs to concentrate on with ferocity is the complete stopping of the smuggling out of the fuel oils. The home ministry needs to be taken to task for its unacceptable failure in stopping this smuggling.
According to one estimate, nearly 0.3 million tons of fuel oils on average worth some US$ 250 million are smuggled out of Bangladesh to India -- annually -- because of the much higher prices they fetch there. Yet then, government in Bangladesh found it worthwhile to keep the subsidies on fuel oils to help consumers and, more significantly, to keep agricultural productivity high even though the loss from smuggling was always considered an undesirable one. The difference this year is that the smuggling of fuel oils -- specially diesel -- has increased so much that it threatens very seriously the total agricultural productivity in the country. Never before diesel was smuggled out in so large quantities and in such a planned manner like in the current year.
As a consequence of the inability to run irrigation pumps with diesel, it is feared that the irri-boro crop will decline by some 12 per cent. This means a production shortfall of irri-boro by some 1.8 million tons. The crop loss will have to be made up by importing food grains. The costs of importing some 1.8 million tons of food grains to make up for the reduced irri-boro harvest will call for spending some additional US$ 550 million when the foreign currency reserve of the country remains under a stress from the need to import petroleum and other products with notably increased prices.
Thus, the smuggling out of diesel will likely lead to triple losses for the economy. First of all, an amount higher than $ 250 million will be completely lost on account of the smuggled out product. Secondly, the farmers in Bangladesh will not get the benefit of the subsidy on diesel price for the amount which is being smuggled out. Thirdly, the country will be burdened with the need to spend an additional half a billion dollars to import food. The same would not be necessary if the smuggling was at a lower level as in past years.
Like the smuggling out of diesel, another crucial agro-input, fertiliser, is also getting smuggled out. This is not a new phenomenon but occurs every year. According to an assessment some two billion Taka worth of fertilisers on average is annually smuggled out. But the rate has much accelerated in the present year and this has created a fertiliser crisis for Bangladeshi farmers no different from the one they face from the diesel crisis. According to reports, a powerful syndicate is engaged in this smuggling out of fertiliser to India and Myanmar through river and coastal routes. The syndicate is well protected by powerful and influential quarters and some members of the BDR and the coast guards are alleged to be their accomplices. Meanwhile, farmers have been demonstrating, barricading and even rioting in some places for not getting adequate supplies of fertiliser or for its very high price.
The very dangerous trend of smuggling out of key agro-inputs on a massive scale never seen before and amid countrywide apprehension that the main rice crop of the year could be substantially reduced from the effects of such unconscionable smuggling, raises some obvious questions. What has the relevant ministry been doing to nab the corrupt ones in the law enforcement bodies? Why has it failed to take special steps to stop the smuggling of these crucial agro-inputs? Indeed, stopping of this suicidal smuggling operation ought to now become the concern of the government at the very highest level in the backdrop of the failure of the home ministry in this regard.