Shoppers throng state-owned stores for groceries at discounted pricesCustomers said they saved money, but there was risk of infection due to lack of social distancing.
On Monday morning, Surendra Shrestha stood in line outside the Salt Trading Corporation outlet at Kalimati for nearly three hours to buy food items at discounted prices.
Crowds had gathered in front of the state-owned store after the budget statement for the upcoming fiscal year 2021-22 promised relief to consumers.
“I was happy with the budget announcement, but the distribution process is so weak,” said the 33-year-old Shrestha who works as a tourist guide.
He had left home early in the morning with his shopping list of cooking gas, edible oil, flour and lentils. “It is useless to stand in line for so long in the sun just to get a few products,” he said.
“The corporation provides only small quantities of food items which will not last more than a week as there are six members in my family,” said Shrestha who lives in a rented flat at Kalimati. “How long will a litre of oil last when it has to be used twice a day?” he asked.
“I am not going to shop there again as there is a very high risk of catching the infection and it lacks proper management for distribution,” Shrestha told the Post. "With only two attendants serving customers, it takes time and there is always a long queue," he said.
As the tourism industry is flat on the ground, Shrestha says he is having a hard time managing the family expenses with his income sources cut off.
The budget statement for the fiscal year 2021-22 had said a 20 percent discount would be provided on rice, flour, lentils, iodised salt, edible oil, sugar and cooking fuel at stores maintained by Food Management and Trading Company and Salt Trading Corporation under a relief subsidy and economic revival programme for the duration of the pandemic.
Accordingly, the two government-owned companies have been issuing the groceries at discounted prices from their outlets in the valley and across the country since Friday.
Food Management and Trading Company is providing a 20 percent discount on seven types of rice and Karnali beans. The company has set a quota of 30 kg of rice and 2 kg of Karnali beans per family. Consumers need to show their identity card while shopping at the company stores.
The discount scheme is available at Food Management and Trading Company's outlets at Thapathali and Ramshah Path in Kathmandu, Nakhu in Lalitpur and Suryabinayak in Bhaktapur and in different districts outside the valley.
Salt Trading has set a quota of 2 kg of flour, 1 litre of soybean oil, one cylinder of cooking gas, sugar and salt for a family of five. Shoppers need to bring a photocopy of their citizenship certificate.
The corporation sells flour at Rs44 per kg, sugar at Rs63 per kg, salt at Rs16 per kg, soybean oil at Rs188 per litre and cooking gas at Rs1,120 per cylinder.
The fuel is sold in Kathmandu Valley only and buyers have to exchange an empty STC cylinder for a full one.
Salt Trading maintains outlets at Koteshwor, Patan, Satungal, Kalimati and Bhaktapur in the valley and in Narayanghat outside the valley.
Consumer rights activists have criticised the relief programme as being conducted without proper planning and homework. It has failed to provide relief to consumers because of mismanagement in the distribution system with limited outlets, they said.
People are not allowed to go outside their homes because of the lockdown, so the relief programme is only a charade. Those in need have not been able to get the essential items at discounted prices, according to the consumer rights activists.
"The small rations of food items, discounted prices of cooking gas for STC brand only and the requirement to submit a photocopy of the citizenship certificate to get the discount is impractical amid the pandemic," said Madhav Timilsina, president of the Consumer Rights Investigation Forum.
"The targeted consumers like people who have lost their jobs, minimum income earners, and poor and marginalised people have not come to benefit from the relief provision," Timilsina said.
“Consumers have had to return empty-handed after standing in line for a long time, and the relief programme has not been able to benefit even those living in central Kathmandu due to the limited number of outlets,” he said.
Kumar Rajbhandari, chief executive officer of Salt Trading Corporation, said that from Friday till Monday, nearly 2,200 people had benefited from the relief programme launched by the government. "Nearly 800-900 people are buying the subsidised groceries daily, and the number is rising," he said.
The corporation said that it had slashed the opening hours to 7 to 9 am from Tuesday as per the order of the chief district officer due to large crowds at the outlets and increased risk of spreading the infection. The outlets were previously open from 10 am to 3 pm.
“We have enough salt for nine months, around 550 tonnes of sugar and regular supply of edible oil and other essential food items, so there is no problem on the supply front,” Rajbhandari said.
Shrestha said he saved around Rs150 by buying groceries at the government store at discounted prices. But he had to take the risk of getting infected as there was no social distancing, he said.
On Monday, early birds had started queuing up at the store from 8 am even though the opening time was 10 am, and Shrestha was one of them.