Braving intense heat, she lined up in a long queue at the capital’s Farmgate last week in hopes of buying essentials at subsidized rates from a truck selling the produce.

But Halima Khatun, 70, was unlucky on Thursday. In fact, she has not purchased much-needed items for the past eight consecutive days, other than weekends, despite waiting for several hours.

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The reason: The people who run the state-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) open market (OMS) sales operations via trucks have run out of stocks for the day as demand has increased.

“The stocks are exhausted before I can reach number one,” Khatun said.

The breadwinner of a family of four washes utensils as a housekeeper in three houses. During the interval between shifts, she comes and stands in the queue.

She earns 5,000 Tk per month and 80% of this is spent to pay the rent on the house. To make ends meet, she has to rely on the generosity of a landlord, who from time to time gives her money to buy groceries and pay the rent on the house.

“I try to buy certain items from the truck because the products are cheaper than the regular market price. But most of the day I have to leave empty-handed,” Khatun told The Daily Star, while ‘she was sweating.

Like Khatun, many poor and low-income people are lining up to buy essentials at subsidized rates as their incomes have plummeted due to the economic downturn induced by the coronavirus.

According to an April survey by the Power and Participation Research Center (PPRC) and the Institute for Governance and Development in Brac, up to 2.45 crore people have fallen into poverty as a result of the pandemic.

This means that 40% of the population of Bangladesh lived in poverty, up from 20.5% before the pandemic.

Although people returned to work after the second wave of infections ended in August, jobs are lower and paid less than in the past, analysts say.

Soaring food prices in recent weeks, caused by rising prices in global markets for growing demand and supply chain disruption, have lengthened the queues.

Soybean and palm oil prices are up more than 50 percent from a year ago, while lentil prices are up 30 percent, according to data compiled by the TCB.

The price of onions climbed 50% last month.

Under the WHO operation, low-income people can buy one liter of soybean oil for 100 Tk and one kilogram of sugar for 55 Tk, lentils for 55 Tk and onions for 30 Tk.

In the kitchen market, the price per liter of soybean oil was 135 Tk, per kilogram of Tk 79 sugar, 85 lentils and Tk 60 onion, on October 14.

A person can buy a maximum of two liters of oil, four kilograms of onion, two kilograms of sugar and two kilograms of lentils.

In 2019, the government was selling subsidized essential items in 180 trucks at as many points. It rose to 300 in 2020 as the pandemic has left millions of people without jobs, or with reduced incomes if they are lucky enough to keep their jobs.

The number of trucks has now increased to 450, according to the TCB. About 1,700 kilograms of product are sold by truck.

Despite the increase in the number of trucks, Fahmida Akter, a governess in Mirpur, the capital, had to leave empty-handed after standing in line for five hours.

On Sunday, she arrived in front of the Sony Cinema Hall in Mirpur at 9:30 a.m. and waited until 2 p.m. Yet, she still could not purchase the items.

“I came here for the first time. As the prices of basic necessities rise, I have become helpless.”

“Where else can I go? I can’t afford my children’s school fees, house rent and other expenses.”

Sheuli Akhtar, who lives in Mirpur, regularly purchases essential items from the truck. She says she has to wait about two hours to make the purchase.

Baby Akhtar, a woman pulling a rickshaw, was lining up in the New Market neighborhood on Sunday.

Whenever the breadwinner of a family of four arrives, the staff selling the items tell them that the stock is depleted.

“These long queues have proven that there are a lot of people who have fallen into poverty because of the pandemic. Their condition has worsened by the recent increases in commodity prices,” Hossain said. Zillur Rahman, Executive Chairman of the PPRC.

He suggested that the government expand the social safety net program and provide direct cash assistance.

“The demand for TCB products is huge,” said Mostafizur Rahman, owner of Sumaiya Tanisha Enterprise, a TCB reseller that sells essential items near Mirpur Bangla College.

“There is a daily demand of 5,000 kg of product at this location, but we sell about 1,700 to 1,800 kg of product. I have informed the TCB authority of the demand.”

Some regular customers claim that unions have formed around the points of sale of the articles.

People linked to the unions sell the products to dishonest merchants at higher prices after buying them at lower prices from the WHO operation, one said.

TCB spokesperson Humayun Kabir also admits that there is an existence of unions in Dhaka Division.

Each group is made up of 30 people. These people buy products from TCB trucks, go to the market and sell them for a higher price, he said.

“We change places frequently so that unions cannot function,” Kabir said.

“We are aware that many people stand in line for a long time and return without having the items,” he added.

The government’s budget allocation for the WHO TCB operation was Tk 948 crore in FY21, compared to Tk 876 crore in FY20, according to finance ministry data.

The government has allocated Tk 1,019 crore for fiscal year 22.

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