Some workers smeared all over with grease and grime were seen repairing a motor vehicle at a workshop beside a road in Jashore. While they were wielding their tools–hammers and chisels–to renovate the bus, a man in his forties was observing them closely. He was the owner of the bus.
He said the cost to repair an automobile's body in Jashore is much lower than it is anywhere else in the country, so he brought his bus there from Fardipur to repair.
Workers said the ramshackle bus will gain a new lease of life within days and ply on the roads for decades.
Shahin Kabir, president of the Jashore Automobile Workshop Owners Association, said, "More than Tk500 crore is transacted in this sector every year."
"Manufacturing the body of a Hino bus costs around Tk13 lakh in Dhaka, but the same can be made in Jashore for Tk7-8 lakh," said Shahin, owner of Shahin Automobile Workshop.
He said, "Making the body of an automobile like the ones made by Tata Motors costs at least Tk5 lakh less in Jashore than it does in Dhaka."
So, the workshops in Jashore receive orders to make huge numbers of bodies for automobiles made by famous companies like Hino and Tata every year.
Shahin said they could also make bodies like the buses made by luxurious brands like Hino RM-2 and Volvo.
Many prominent transportation companies like Eagle Paribahan, Shohagh Paribahan, and Hanif Enterprise often order vehicle bodies from the workshops there.
Pabitra Kapuria, general secretary of Inter-district Bus Owners Association, said, "It costs much less to make automobiles bodies at the workshops here. So, we order bodies from these workshops."
"The quality of their work is very good too. So many other transportation companies like us make their automobile bodies at the workshops in Jashore," said Pabitra, who is also the owner of Eagle Paribahan.
There are more than 1,000 automobile workshops in Jashore city and eight upazilas of the district, where over 250 automobile bodies are made every month on an average in normal times, according to the Jashore Automobile Workshop Owners Association.
Additionally, numerous vehicle cabins are also made and repaired here.
Workers in this sector carry out all the work manually. Using tools like hammers and chisels, they manufacture vehicle bodies just like the ones made by Korean, Japanese, and Indian automobile companies.
These workers are capable of making any motor vehicles' body just by looking at it. After they mount a new body on an older chassis, the vehicle can run for 30-40 more years.
They remodeled cars made in 1982, which are still running well, said some workers.
From worker to workshop owner
Sultan Ahmed dropped out of school when he was 10, and went to learn automobile repair work from an ostad (master). The work was difficult to grasp for the young boy, but he gradually mastered it through a lot of effort.
Now Sultan is 40 years old and a very skilled motor mechanic who owns a workshop named Bishal Automobile Workshop, where 15-20 workers are employed.
There are several hundred successful proprietors like Sultan in Jashore, who are doing very well as owners of automobile workshops.
Often only an engine of an automobile is imported from abroad, for which these workshops make the whole body and paint it flawlessly.
Rafiq Babu, former president of the Jashore Automobile Workshop Owners Association, said automobile owners from Khulna, Barishal, Rajbari, Faridpur, Pabna, Rangpur, Kushtia, Satkhira, Sirajganj went to Jashore to make bodies for their vehicles.
History of workshops in Jashore
Automobile repair workshops in Jashore started around half a century ago. These workshops got busier when importing Hino buses in the country started at the end of the 1980s.
Jashore automobile workshops became famous all over the country over the years. There are rows of motor workshops of different sizes from the Bakchar area to Murali in the Jashore city.
Further, there are many more workshops in the Khajura Bus Stand, Narail Road, Central Bus Terminal areas, and the upazilas.
According to the automobile workshop owners' association, around 35,000 workers are involved in this industry directly and indirectly.
A noticeable feature of these workshops is that their owners also dirtied their hands to carry out the tasks.
Initially, Danso Engineering and Zia Engineering Workshop in Dhaka made automobile bodies.
Later Navana Motors, a concern of Islam Group of Industries, started the work here.
After that, a large business sector emerged in the country when demand for making and repairing bodies of buses and trucks made by Tata and Ashok Leyland grew here.
At that time, Abdul Mannan, a mechanic, set up the first workshop in Jashore to manufacture or repair automobile bodies manually.
Gradually Rafiq Babu, Jahangir Mistry, Shahin Kabir, Siraj Babu, Kamal Hossain, and Manoranjan joined the sector and many others following them set up vibrant automobile workshops in the district.
Crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic
Md Babu, general secretary of the Jashore Automobile Workshop Owners Association, said they had no work during the first five months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"One month has passed since we resumed our work. We will start working at full capacity if there are no more shutdowns," he said.
Badal Rahman, a worker from Bakchar area in the city, said "We received no salaries for three months during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now we are again getting our salaries as we have resumed working."
Crisis of capital and other obstacles
Workshop owners as well as the workers said if they could obtain a little training and modern equipment, they would be able to present the country with automobile bodies better than the ones made by prominent companies.
A lack of capital is another obstacle to the development of this industry in Jashore, said the people concerned. Each workshop needs at least Tk40 lakh to acquire modern equipment.
The workshop owners did not have any success in trying to secure loans from the banks. Only Janata Bank agreed to provide them Tk30,000-40,000 loans, which is inadequate compared to the amount they need.
However, Aktaruzzaman, head of United Commercial Bank in Khulna region, said it was not possible for the bank to lend money without any security. The bank would give loan to a workshop owner if he keeps his residence or some other property.
The industry developed in the residential area in a residential area beside the main road, which is another obstacle in the path to its growth, opined people involved in this sector. The local people have complained about these workshops.
The workshop owners said they contacted the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) regarding the issue. The BSCIC agreed to provide them some land to set up an industrial park for these workshops, but it progressed much further than that.
However, Farida Akter, acting deputy general manager of BSCIC Jashore, said a proposal was sent to the industries ministry on April 30, 2005 to set up a separate BSCIC estate for the workshops in Jashore.
She also said 40 acres of land in Daitola area in Sadar upazila was considered for this purpose at that time, but the ministry has not responded to the proposal in the long time that has since passed.
However, the BSCIC is very interested in setting up an estate for the automobile workshops in Jashore, said Farida.
The workshop owners said they have been saving millions of foreign currencies by manufacturing automobile bodies in the country. They can take this industry much further ahead if they get assistance like financing and training from the government and non-governmental sources.
This sector can even develop into an export-oriented industry with proper patronizing, said the automobile workshop owners.