The country's first private export processing zone in Chattogram's Rangunia is yet to be launched, although the foundation stone was laid 23 years ago in 1999.
The EPZ on Karnaphuli river bank was to have an IT hub and an agro valley that would generate 50,000 jobs. But 550 acres of land earmarked for the EPZ at Jungle Ghatcheck area are still covered by shrubs and vines.
After coming to power in 1996, the Awami League government passed a bill called "Private Export Processing Zones (EPZS)", which became law in less than a month. At the first meeting of the board of governors of EPZS, a proposal was placed to set up the first privately owned export processing zone in Rangunia.
When the government approved the proposal on 29 March 1998, "Chittagong Industrial Park Limited" was formed. The foundation stone of the Rangunia EPZ was laid by the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 10 October 1999.
The subsequent progress of the project is as bleak as the dreamy start. After the land survey in 1999, land documents were submitted to 13 local and foreign investors in 2000.
But after the four-party coalition government took power in 2001, the project stalled. When the Awami League government came to power in 2008 again, it took an initiative to reboot the project. On 7 October 2010, a meeting of the board of directors of private export processing zones, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, decided in principle to acquire the land.
What was in the grand plan?
The project area of Rangunia EPZ is located about 30 kilometres away from Chattogram city and only 10km away from Kaptai upazila of Rangamati. The Chattogram-Kaptai road and the River Karnaphuli within two kilometres has made the zone easier to communicate with.
Being very close to the Chattogram Hill Tracts, the EPZ had an opportunity to become the destination for agro items grown in the hills. There were also opportunities to expand business to northeast India, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and China by exploiting geographical advantages.
According to BEPZA sources, an agreement in 2000 was signed with Bechtel, a leading engineering company for submarine cables, for the IT hub in the EPZ. Bechtel planned to invest Tk700 crore at the initial stage and Tk2,500 crore later in the EPZ. The EPZ, which has unique features of hills and plains, also has some installations, including helipads, control towers and boundary walls.
As per the Chittagong Industrial Park Limited website, 87 acres of land has already been registered with the EPZ, while acquisition of another 182 acres of land is going on. It has already received approval from the National Board of Revenue for duty-free imports of materials and equipment for the zone's infrastructure.
Big initiative in the wrong hands?
Locals said formation of private export processing zones by inexperienced people led to the current stalled situation of the Rangunia EPZ.
Journalist and researcher Enayetur Rahim said Chittagong Industrial Park Limited Managing Director Qaiyum Chowdhury had taken the initiative to build the EPZ on his ancestral property. Some locals also gave him their land for the EPZ.
But the project hit a stumbling block as Qaiyum Chowdhury allegedly did not coordinate with the district administration and it was not possible to acquire the remaining land.
Abdul Qayyum Talukder, a local landowner who gave his plot to the setting of the EPZ, said, "We have been dreaming about this EPZ for a long time. We gave land for development and job creation. But it has not been implemented in the last 24 years."
Rangunia Upazila Vice-Chairman Shafiqul Islam said, "Rangunia EPZ and Korean EPZ are contemporary projects. Initially, several companies, including even two Australian companies, came to invest in Rangunia EPZ."
Former economics professor of Chattogram University Dr Muinul Islam said maybe the initiative to set up Rangunia EPZ was right in the reality of that time. But this EPZ will not be required anymore as 100 EPZs are now being built across the country.
He, however, said export-oriented agro-based industries can be set up in the Rangunia region to process fruits and vegetables grown in the hills.
Despite repeated attempts, The Business Standard could not reach Chittagong Industrial Park Limited Managing Director Qaiyum Chowdhury for comment. He did not even reply to text messages and emails.