Last Tuesday was marked by people lining in front of retail shops and squabbling for a grain of salt with the essential item selling at double its normal price without any rhyme or reason. In the city's inner parts, in allays and streets, people, fresh from their bad luck with onions, swooped on wherever they could to buy the precious item of salt. Law enforcers spent little time in dispersing the crowds wherever they could and fined some retailers. Business bodies alerted people not to believe in the gossips and expressed the positive news that indeed there was enough salt in stock. That indeed there was no shortage to fear about like in the case of onions, which mostly came from neighbouring India, and where bad weather had hampered production leading to an export ban. That Bangladeshis consume mostly home-made salt, there being surplus production every year, is a satisfying state of affairs. Some salt traders, or a miniscule part of them, possibly thought that if onions could fetch such high dividends why not make an attempt for the same from salt! However, the basic fault in their thinking was that unlike onion, almost all the salt was home-made.
Salt however has indeed a long history of a rollercoaster ride in Bengal over time. The first post-1947 government in East Bengal had faced popular resentment because of salt price hike for some time. The British rulers in 1882 imposed tariffs on salt, seeing it an easy way to increase state revenue. MK Gandhi had become known for, among other things, his 'Salt March' of the early thirties of the last century. It was against the tariffs the British rulers had imposed, although it marked a substantial arousal of the people for self-rule.
The present crisis is evidently the creation of rumour mongering rather than any supply crunch. The total lack of social obligation and business ethics on the part of a quickly formed syndicate created artificial scarcity at the drop of a hat. This newly emerging trend has to be tackled at several levels: Protection of consumer rights in the light of the Consumer Rights Protection Act 2009, consumer resistance based on awareness of market data periodically made available and nipping rumours in the bud with stringent punishment. Experts have pointed to a glaring lack of market intelligence on the part of the people involved. More so is the lack of confidence in market mechanism. Such an important and indispensable item as salt cannot be allowed to dawdle on the whim of a few traders and a seeming public credulity in swallowing any information without verification.
It is good that after only a day of wobbling, salt price and salt supply have returned to sanity and the rumour mongers have been put to perspective. Latest reports speak of mobile courts fining 119 traders and putting 35 to different terms of imprisonment. Simultaneously, an awareness building campaign has been launched to drum the massage into the public ear against gullibility to irresponsible words of mouth. This should be carried out on a continuing basis to yield durable consumer resistance with stringent punishment given to proven rumour mongers.