On Tuesday, November 16, Muhaimenul Hasan saw something strange when a blackout engulfed the entire district of Sylhet. Overnight, the cost of food, transport and things which have little to nothing to do with electricity shot up.
Muhaimenul had to buy candles and water bottles for twice the usual price and pay the CNG driver thrice the usual fare on his way to New Market. When the power-cut continued for more than 30 hours, he had to pay some newly spawned "entrepreneurs" Tk2,000 to refill the water tank.
This situation prevailed all across Sylhet for two days.
A fire broke out in Kumargaon Power Plant at 11am - burning two transformers and a control panel before the Fire Service and Civil Defense personnel brought it under control. This caused a blackout throughout the entire Sylhet district.
The BREB (Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board) and PDB (Power Development Board) were able to restore power in most areas after 36 hours, during which Sylhetis confronted an ugly side of human nature.
Power cut had put the inhabitants of Sylhet City and adjacent areas in considerable disadvantage. City life came to a grinding halt as electric cookers and water supplying motors fell silent.
People were forced to collect water from ponds and tributaries of River Surma using buckets and pots. Discharged batteries led to dead phones and laptops putting education, trade and other necessary tasks at jeopardy. The power-cut simply amputated 450,000 people of the city who depended heavily on modern technology.
Yet, certain people took this opportunity to capitalise on people's helplessness. Charging phone batteries for Tk50 and refilling a 2,000-litre water tank for Tk2,000 proved to be quite successful for shopkeepers and the self-styled "entrepreneurs". Others soon joined the party. Candlesticks worth Tk5 were being sold for Tk10 to 15 as people rushed to the shops.
Prices of goods which seemingly don't have any direct relation to electricity also started to spike. Rickshaw Pullers and CNG drivers started charging twice and thrice the usual fare the next day.
Food items and bottled drinking water, of which there was no shortage, were being sold for 10 to 15 percent higher than the actual prices. Panic and uncertainty engulfed the city as people feared a potential power-cut for days could leave them more vulnerable as some "business people" took this golden opportunity to earn a few extra bucks.
However, such opportunistic behaviours are not unique to Sylhet, neither is it a recent phenomenon. They have plagued this nation for decades, or some may even say centuries.
During the second world war in 1943, as the Japanese Imperial Army marched towards India, India's colonial masters - the British - stockpiled food grains and burned unnecessary" food items to deny the Japanese any food supply should they manage to conquer Eastern India.
Bengal started to experience food shortage when some "smart" people thought of a brilliant plan to hoard food grains which would shoot up food prices and make them rich. This turned the severe food shortage into a full-fledged famine, starving five million people to death. Mass food riots and crimes shook Undivided Bengal to her core.
Even in recent times, coronavirus has proved to be quite handy in bringing out the opportunistic nature in some people. As Bangladesh prepared for a national shutdown in March, food prices shot up. Surgical masks which could be bought for Tk20 to 30 were being sold for Tk200 to 300.
In 2019, onion prices rose to Tk150 from Tk80 after India stopped its export abruptly. Hoarders started stockpiling onions in hopes to sell the stocks at a higher price later, and the prices shot up to Tk300 per kilo. One hoarder in Khatunganj, Chattogram, had to discard 15 tonnes of rotten onion which were hoarded for a long time with hopes that prices would hike up more!
People would let food rot than give it to someone at a fair price. This blatant opportunism goes far beyond free-market ethos. A free-market would allow prices of commodities to go up when demand outstrips supply.
But blatant opportunism and unregulated market prices would destroy consumer trust and sow seeds of doubt in people about the market's stability. The government and all Bangladeshis must strive to spread awareness regarding this, so we may stop this gross misconduct whenever some people find others at a disadvantage.
Muhaimenul breathed a sigh of relief when BREB restored electricity after 36 hours in Sylhet and the situation went back to normal. Yet, in this day and age when misinformation, rumour, opportunism are at an all-time high, we should work towards a society where people won't just look for a dividend whenever they see the society in crisis. Otherwise, our next crisis could turn into a catastrophe.