December 02, 2007

Fertiliser, Media Coverage and an Advisor Completely At Sea

Correction: The first segment translated from the Amader Shomoy report had a vital error in it. It read that farmers were not used to buying fertiliser on credit. It should have read that they are not used to buying fertiliser with cash. The correction has been made, and the segment makes more sense now. We regret this error and blame it entirely on lack of sleep and the pressures of infrequent buses in remote areas.

Update: Saif has responded to my hints/goading with a superb post on subsidies to farmers, the best way to enforce them and why they might be fuelling smuggling to and from India. (All this while completing an academic paper due tomorrow: a true blogging hero! Good luck with the paper Saif.)
Also worth checking out is Leela's post on fertilizer subsidies in Malawi also at Addafication.
I have very little idea as to the difference between the old distribution system and the new one. If/when I receive such information, I might do a blog post on it. I leave such things to the experts. This is a blog post about the media coverage of and government response to the shortage of fertiliser in some areas.

Media coverage

On 30th November, Naya Diganta was reporting about unrest near UNO, dealer and other government offices with the headline "Riots over Fertiliser" and the sub-headline "Crisis(?) in world markets because of India and America; government will directly import urea; strikes in many areas". Ok, so the sub-headline is expected given their ideological slant vis a vis India and America, but true to a certain degree from the little I know about the demand for urea. Blame the increased demand for corn for ethanol production. I have no issue with the rest of the report, which is accurate to its headline. There is a tangential point of interest which I'll highlight later.

Move over to the Amader Shomoy report on the same issue, from the same day. Headline: "Who will provide the 2000 crore taka needed to buy fertilizer?", sub-headline: "Farmers are getting trapped into debt after borrowing at high interest rates from banks, NGOs, credit unions and money lenders". The rest of the report is filled with anecdotal reports - which have their value, I admit - but which hardly makes for good economics analysis of debt. And the sub-headline makes you think that the debt trap is the problem.

But once you keep reading, you come across interesting tid-bits that one feels should have made their way into the headline. Things like the second paragraph:

We have come to know that no one is used to buying fertilizer with hard cash, even though they are associated with the agricultural sector. So even this year, no one was prepared. But the government's slip system and the directive to distribute fertliser through dealers has made cash necessary for the farmers

Or take the last line of the second-last para:

Kofil Uddin Ahmed, the chairman of Bangladesh Fertilizer Association, said that 28 lakh MT urea are sold for 1680 crore Taka and 10 lakh MT TSP, MOP and DAP fertilisers for 2000 crore Taka. Of this amount, farmers usually have a credit of 2000 crore taka with fertiliser dealers and businesses. They repay this amount after harvesting and selling their crops. But under the government's new system of distribution, farmers are not getting the opportunity for this sort of credit.

Now this is a sorry piece of journalism right here. When the meat of the report says that the government's new system "has made cash necessary" and no one is used to this, the sub-headline leads any casual reader in a completely different direction, implying that the blame lies with the providers of credit (ie. banks, NGOs, credit unions and of course the infamous "moneylender"). That the new system itself is new and completely surprising to the users (ie. the farmers) is something that only readers who have read through this confusing jumble at least twice will understand. Or those readers who have gone through the Naya Diganta ...

It is part and parcel of a strategy of trying to shift the focus of whatever is going wrong thanks to the current CTG onto convenient scapegoats. In this case, the less powerful bureaucracies such as the Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank and of course, the "NGOs". Throw in a completely irrelevant quote about farmers affected by the cyclone and how that is affecting crop yield, and you get a picture of big, bad urban institutions and rich rural moneylenders all trying to screw over the poor little farmer.

Yet, the meat of the report - indeed, the part with the most clarity - puts the blame firmly on the government's new system for the farmers' woes. And the Naya Diganta report on unrest simply confirms it. So the question to ask: why such a horribly misleading sub-headline after an eye-catching but mystifying headline?

The Naya Diganta report ends by listing a bunch of people held for smuggling fertilizer - FROM India, INTO Bangladesh (Am I reading this right?). No doubts interesting things can be said here about arbitrage and the ethics of arresting people for bringing fertilizer illegally into the country at a time of shortage. *looking pointedly at Saif from Addafication*

Afterthought: The Daily Star meanwhile ran this story today. There was no mention of any disturbance or riots yesterday. If this were the BNP-Jamaat government, the DS would probably have had the name and individual bios of each and every protesting farmer (obvious exaggeration for unsuccessful comic effect). Now that itself is not a problem by me. What is a problem is this complete lack of consistency in journalism and accountability.

Waking Up and Smelling the গবর

Meanwhile, as regular readers may remember, a few days ago Mrs. Geeteara Chowdhury had me yearning for the good old days when every report of unrest from the .... uhhh "peripheries" of Dhakastan was dismissed as "media creation". For those (few) who appreciated the sarcasm then (I really didn't miss it because she actually said that reports of a fertiliser crisis were "media creations"), here is Mrs. Chowdhury yesterday from Dinajpur singing a slightly different tune:

‘Excessive control of the government has created problem in making easy availability of fertiliser,’ she said referring to the agitation and road blockade by the farmers in different parts of the country.
‘We are seriously mulling over measures to ensure smooth supply of fertiliser. The problem will soon be resolved, the adviser said.

She also gave Dinajpur some tips on how to increase tourism.

But I am completely sure that this government is taking measures to ensure smooth supply of fertiliser. If the figurative bullshit they have given us so far could somehow be metamorphosized into its literal form then Bangladesh could even afford to export some fertilizer to India and America.


tacit said...

Excellent post, DS.

The most pessimistic private reports coming out of Bangladesh put the food crisis lurking ahead near the magnitude of the 1974 famine.

I sincerely hope that things don't detoriorate to that extent. But if things, and by things, I mean the government's performance level, continue in the present course, they probably will.

Thank you for picking up this issue. There has been a very surprising and suspicious lull in the blogosphere regarding this matter. I definitely think it's more important than the historical atrifacts lending controversy.

DhakaShohor said...

No doubts about the fertilizer issue being more important. But I think it's much easier to talk about that right now in the media than "fertilizer crisis". And no matter how much we criticise them, without the media we bloggers are lost.

Any idea as to how the new "slip system" is different from the old system? From what I hear, supply is not so much a problem as is distribution.

Meanwhile, Leela at addafication has a post on this issue as well. I don't agree with her on the details, but the good people at Adda rarely disappoint. Check it out.

tacit said...

Thanks for pointing it out. Which part would you say you disagreed with the most?

As far as I can personally tell, the fertilizer system is much like our electrical system. No matter how much the distribution system may be blamed, the bottom line is that we simply do not have enough to go around and meet everyone's needs. And that's a crying, stinking shame.

DhakaShohor said...

I disagree that there are not enough subsidies. The Naya Diganta report says that the cost of urea fertilizer is 7000Tk/MT while the cost of importing fertiliser is 25,000Tk/MT. The government is selling both at 4,800 Tk./MT. I pointed this out in a comment to Leela's post, it just hasn't made it past the moderation queue yet.

Now for the caveats:

1) I don't know what the share between public and private sector provisions are.

2) Leela's point may well have been that privatization of the fertilizer sector in the early 90s was the problem.

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