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Economic lockdowns and social distancing have turned COVID-19 from a public health crisis to a humanitarian disaster. BRAC has constructed a ‘Khichuri Index’ to understand the net impact of these changes on the food security of people who depend on daily wages.
The ‘Khichuri Index’ reflects the weighted average cost of a bowl of khichuri— a popular all-day meal in most Bangladeshi homes. This index is similar to the Financial Times’ ‘Breakfast Index’, which is constructed by using the weighted average of the cost of a ‘continental breakfast’. In Bangladesh, the idea was first floated on this blog.
A portion of the index’s Khichuri can feed a family of 4-5 people, and contains a kilogram of rice, 500g lentils, 150g onion, 10g salt, 40mL soybean oil, 10g green chilli and two eggs. A portion of egg khichuri also contains two eggs.
The daily wages of agricultural labourers and rickshaw pullers were analysed for the index, to represent agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.
The total daily wage for an agricultural labourer was calculated by monetising the two meals a farm labourer receives for a day’s work and adding their daily wage. The total daily wage for a rickshaw puller was calculated by deducting their rickshaw rent from their daily earnings.
The districts in the index were selected based on their level of vulnerability.
Dhaka and Chattogram are representative of large urban cities. Gaibandha and Dinajpur, in northern Bangladesh, represent regions with high levels of poverty. Sunamganj, northeastern Bangladesh, represents the haor (wetlands) regions – some of the remotest regions in the country, along with Bandarban in the Chattogram Hill Tracts of southeastern Bangladesh. Bhola, south-central Bangladesh, and Satkhira, south-western Bangladesh, are representative of regions prone to cyclones.
The wage rates of agricultural labourers and rickshaw pullers diverged considerably after the economic lockdown began.
The wage rate of an agricultural labourer increased significantly, especially in haor districts like Sunamganj, where the harvesting of boro rice (a special type of rice grown on residual water in low-lying land) occurs in April/May. Agricultural wages are expected to rise in regions like Gaibandha, Dinajpur and Bagura at the end of May, in line with the harvest season of that part of the country.
The wage rate of a rickshaw puller reduced significantly due to the lockdown. The closure of offices and shops resulted in less movement among people, leaving rickshaw pullers without passengers.
The cost of a portion of khichuri, both with and without egg, rose between February and April. From the third week of March, disruption in the agricultural supply chain and the expected hike in demand due to the month of Ramadan (a holy month for Muslims) pushed prices up.
At the start of February, both agricultural and non-agricultural labourers could afford approximately six to seven portions of khichuri without egg with their daily wage. Towards the end of April, rickshaw pullers could only earn a little over two portions a day for the family.
The situation is even worse with egg. A rickshaw puller would be unable to afford two square meals with their daily wage.
The divergence of affordability in certain districts is more prominent than others.
The wage rate spiked in Sunamganj during harvesting. Dinajpur was on a downhill trajectory since the lockdown, even though the impact of the lockdown was slow to set in.
It is important to note here that the income of an agricultural labourer and the income of a farmer is not the same. It is entirely possible that difficulties in market access may reduce the income of farmers, even though the wage rate shows an upward trend.
The demand for rickshaw pullers has reduced considerably in these regions. Rickshaw pullers still on the road in these regions own their own rickshaws. Rickshaw pullers do not have any income at all in areas under lockdown or where rickshaw garages are closed.
BRAC will continue to release changes in this index as lockdown restrictions lift, to trace how Bangladesh’s economy recovers. While the index is not an in-depth economic study, it provides a useful indication of how the changes in the economy are affecting food security for different socio-economic groups in different regions of Bangladesh, and can support organisations in planning relief interventions.
KAM Morshed is Senior Director, Advocacy, Technology, Partnership, Migration Programme, and Social Innovation Lab, BRAC. Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications, BRAC.