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Community group slams Fiji minister as out of touch over food costs

Friday 20 May 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Fiji, Regional


Community group slams Fiji minister as out of touch over food costs
Fiji's agriculture minister Mahendra Reddy speaking to farmers in Nausori. Photo: Fiji Govt

The head of a community development organisation in Fiji has criticised a government minister for telling people to "learn to make adjustments" to avoid feeling the impacts of rising food prices in the country.

On Wednesday, Fijian agriculture minister Mahendra Reddy told farmers in Nausori near Suva to substitute "cheaper and healthier food for more expensive imported products."

"It's very important; households must learn to make adjustments," Reddy said.

"If, during the Covid-19 pandemic, they complain that the bundles of beans were $8, I understand, it was. You need to make adjustments to consume those agricultural produce which are less expensive; while supply resumes, prices go down, you can then resume consumption of those."

But the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development (FRIEND) Fiji, director Shashi Kiran said Reddy was out of touch with the real difficulties Fijians are facing.

Kiran told RNZ Pacific the minister "obviously comes in the comfort of his airconditioned vehicle" with a hefty ministerial salary and does not realise it is not as easy for people to adjust to the high costs of living crisis.

Kiran said there's a food shortage and people have been barely living on one to two meals a day.

FRIEND Fiji director Shashi Kiran
Shashi Kiran, left of FRIEND Fiji Photo: FRIEND Fiji

"Where does he want them to adjust to? One meal or a half a meal a day?" she said.

"There's also already major unemployment issues, major overcrowding, we have more than 100,000 people still unemployed in the Western Division through the tourism sector alone."

"I'm not sure where he's coming from or what his comfort zone is that he doesn't understand what people are going through. I think it's really insensitive for him to say that."

Opposition accuses Reddy of 'shocking insensitivity'

The National Federation Party (NFP) also called out Reddy for a "shocking display of insensitivity."

"The FijiFirst party has been in power for too long that they have forgotten about the plight of ordinary Fijians," it stated via Facebook.

Last week, increases in bus fares and wheat-based products, including flour, biscuits and bread came into effect after the Fiji Competition and Consumer Commission (FCCC) completed reviews "triggered by monumental changes in the global market."

The FCCC said the price increases were a result of the Russian-Ukraine war which is "worsening the global food crisis" by disrupting the global supply chains by driving up the cost of fuel and impacting wheat production.

"Fiji cannot control any of these factors nor can Fijian businesses control any of these factors. We are price takers in a global market and are impacted by all these factors," it said in a statement.

"Doing the right thing is not always popular and, in this instance, the right thing to do was to increase fares and prices."

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has warned Fijians to be "cautious with their spending" due to the global market activities which will have "ripple effects" on the nation's economy.

Bainimarama told a local radio programme his government has forked out at least $430 million to assist those affected by the pandemic.

"The government imposed zero-rated VAT on 21 basic consumer items effective last month," he said, adding "the government decided to take this tough decision to cushion the impacts of higher global prices on Fijian consumers."

Government needs to act - Kiran

But Shashi Kiran said the government needed to address the real difficulties of the poorest.

"I think one of the first things we should have been able to see is that the government make adjustments," she said.

"That means in the cost-cutting in of various things. For example, we see a convoy of vehicles, when we see a minister get off for an event, the driver keeps the engine on throughout, so the minister can comfortably come and sit in on the vehicle."

She said the public should be able to see that leaders are making an effort to make an adjustment to save money.

"Our people should be able to see that our leaders care about us. They're willing to stand the stress, they're willing to make the adjustment," she said.

"They themselves are doing gardening themselves cutting back and then they're able to educate the people that this is how I'm doing it, or being able to cut their pay and the luxury and be able to distribute it."

Kiran is urging Bainimarama's government to put in social protection mechanisms to address this issue.

"The government needs to get real to listen to the people and their needs, and then develop the social protection policies and ensure that people are looked after."

She added statements like the one Reddy had made "make everybody angry right now when they're hungry."

Traditional Fijian food for sale at Tukuni Restaurant in Fiji
Traditional Fijian food for sale at Tukuni Restaurant in Fiji Photo: RNZ/Sally Round