DHAKA, Bangladesh — For a 13-year-old boy in this impoverished, teeming city, some things are more important than classes — rice, for one.
"I need to eat first, then school," said Mohammad Hasan, standing at the back of a line of hundreds of people waiting to pick up government-subsidized rice.
With the price of food skyrocketing around the world, desperately poor and overpopulated Bangladesh is considered one of the world's most vulnerable nations.
An adviser to the country's Ministry of Food, A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, warned of a "hidden hunger" in Bangladesh and economists estimate 30 million of the country's 150 million people could go hungry — a crisis that could become a serious political problem for the military-backed government.
"We fear some 30 million of the ultra-poor will not be able to afford three meals a day" said Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, a leading economist in Dhaka, the capital.
Rice up 30 percent
Bangladesh already faces a decrease in arable land due to industrialization and the ever-growing population. Its low-lying land also is reeling from major floods and a devastating cyclone last year that destroyed some 3 million tons of food crops and left millions homeless and hungry.
The price of rice, the core of the Bangladeshi diet, has jumped by more than 30 percent since then — a major problem in a country where nearly half the population survives on less than $1 a day.
Approximately 10,000 textile workers demanding better wages to meet the higher food prices clashed with police near the capital on Saturday, said police station official Angur Akter.
Dozens of people, including at least 20 police officials, were injured in the violence, Akter said. Their exact number and conditions were not immediately known.
The government, which has ruled Bangladesh since January 2007, has responded to the shortages with varying degrees of success. It has opened more than 6,000 outlets distributing rice at roughly half the market price and announced plans to open more.
But "the government failed to build enough stock of food immediately after last year's disasters, and because of that the situation has become volatile," said Ahmad, who heads an independent think tank, the Bangladesh Development Council.
India attempts to help
"The government needs to build a buffer stock immediately. If the government fails, the situation will worsen," he said.
Major opposition parties have recently threatened street protests if the government fails to rein in rising prices, and growing discontent could threaten the political balance.
India has agreed to ship 400,000 tons of heavily discounted rice to Bangladesh, but it could take weeks to arrive and officials are uncertain it will be enough. Because of high food prices, the Asian Development Bank warned that inflation could reach 9 percent by June.
Bangladesh is far from the only country with food problems. There have been riots in the African nations of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal. Rising prices have hit poor countries like Haiti and Peru and even developed countries like Italy and the United States.
Confluence of problems
A confluence of problems are driving up prices. They include soaring petroleum prices, which increase the cost of fertilizers, transport and food processing; rising demand for meat and dairy in China and India, resulting in increased costs for grain, used for cattle feed; and the ever-rising demand for raw materials to make biofuels.
As of December, 37 countries faced food crises, and 20 had imposed some sort of food-price controls. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it's facing a $500 million shortfall in funding this year to feed 89 million needy people.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that prices could continue to rise for several years. "This is not a this-year phenomenon," Zoellick said.