The humble potato is being promoted as the answer to soaring rice prices in impoverished Bangladesh as the crisis pushes many to the brink of starvation, but the poor are reluctant converts.
Some of the nation's many impoverished people have turned to potatoes -- which they eat seasoned with chilli and salt to make them more palatable -- only as a last resort.
AdvertisementSquatting by an urn on a Dhaka street corner, Kushnahar Begum, 55, ekes out a living selling tea to passers-by for a single taka a cup.
The business brings in only about 50 taka (70 cents) a day while the cost of a kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of rice has doubled in a year to more than 40 taka.
"We eat one meal a day but if we become sick and cannot earn anything for a few days then we cannot eat at all," said Kushnahar, adding that she lived in a state of constant anxiety about where the family's next meal was coming from.
In a country where 40 percent of the 144 million population already lives on only a dollar a day, the rise in the cost of rice and other essentials has caused widespread suffering.
The situation has been compounded by floods last summer and last November's devastating Cyclone Sidr which damaged some two million tonnes of rice crops.
"We are suffering, my husband (a labourer) doesn't get the energy to work every day any more and my son has become lean and bony for lack of food," said Kushnahar.
Nearby, her seven-year-old nephew runs up and down the street as he plays with a home-made kite. The boy complains daily to his mother that he is hungry and wants to eat meat, fish and rice, not potatoes, said Kushnahar.
The authorities, however, want Bangladeshis to consume more of the tuber.
Head of the army General Moeen U. Ahmed last month urged all citizens to include potatoes in their diet and army rations now include a daily helping.
This week the country's military-backed emergency government even organised a three-day potato promotion campaign in an attempt to publicise different cooking methods.
Kushnahar has four children, the youngest of whom is 13, and said her family stopped eating fish and vegetables seven months ago as prices spiralled beyond affordability.
The only meat they have had in the past year was donated by rich households during the two main Muslim festivals.
Government-run shops sell subsidised rice at 25 taka per kilogramme but queues are long and the amount each person can buy is limited.
"If I stand in the queue at 5:00 am then I get five kilogrammes of rice by 12 noon. It is enough for one meal a day for five or six days," she said.
Car painter Dulal Sarker, 35, who earns a monthly salary of around 5,000 taka (72 dollars) said his family had also taken to eating potatoes but only because there was no alternative.
Potatoes sell in the markets at 14 taka (two cents) per kilogramme, or ten in the subsidised markets. The country this year saw a bumper harvest of a record eight million tonnes, up by a third on 2007.
"We are Bengalis. We eat rice and fish and we cannot easily change to potatoes except to eat as a vegetable," he said.
Sarker said he was angry that the suffering of the poor and lower middle class had gone almost unnoticed for so long.
"They (the government) are not feeling it as a crisis because they have everything: money in the bank, cars, homes. They can manage everything for themselves but it is a crisis for us because we have nothing," he said.
In his family village in the central Faridpur district, he added, the poorest were now eating just one meal every two days.
"Only God knows how they are surviving, it is unimaginable," he added.
At a supermarket in Dhaka's upmarket Gulshan suburb, meanwhile, most rich families remain unaffected by the crisis.
Here, imported cheese and punnets of blueberries sell for four or five times a labourer's daily wage.
Shopper Faramarz Al Nur, 31, an export businessman, said his family enjoyed potatoes, especially baked, but that poorer sections of the population were not used to the tuber and would take years to change their eating habits.
"Rice is the staple. It will take ten years for all people to get habituated with potatoes," he said
In the meantime, the government would have to stem the growing tide of anger with concrete improvements, he added.
"It is a silent crisis and those who are running Bangladesh have to feel for the country rather than just making speeches. Sweet words are there but nothing is changing.
"The rich are getting richer and the poor are now destitute," he said.
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