Bhairab has developed as an industrial zone in the decades since the emergence of Bangladesh owing to its smooth road and waterways communication. Reputed for being home to the biggest fish market in the country, it is also known for its coal, rice, lentils and jute mills. Today people also know Bhairab for its footwear industry, which has developed over the last 25-30 years.
Stepping off the bus in Bhairab, one will find oneself in the midst of small footwear factories. Backward linkage industries and big shopping malls have come up around the footwear industry.
More than 10,000 small and large shoe factories have been set up in at least 20 villages of seven unions under Sadar upazila and Bhairab municipality, according to the Bangladesh SME Foundation. At least 2 to 2.5 lakh workers are engaged in the industry.
More than 1,000 factories and shops of backward linkage industries like packaging, leather, Rexine, foam, covers and buttons have been developed in the district. Around 15,000-20,000 people are employed in the factories and shops. Besides, more than 1,000 markets for sales of these products have been developed.
There are more than 50,000 shoe makers in Bhairab, according to the Bhairab Paduka Shilpa Malik Samity (or Bhairab footwear industry owners' association). Inclusive of the makers, around 2 lakh people are involved in the industry.
Of the 10,000 factories, 9,000 happen to be small factories, all of which are fully manually operated. It takes Tk50,000 to Tk1 lakh to set up a small factory of this kind.
To build a medium-sized factory, one requires Tk1 crore. On the other hand, some large factories have been built with investments of Tk10 crore and above, with modern machinery being used in them.
Well-known brands of the country are outsourcing the products of these large factories.
Abdul Karim, president of the association, told The Business Standard that businesses worth Tk15-Tk20 crore are carried on in Bhairab per day centring around the industry.
"Due to a smooth communication system, buyers from Dhaka, Chattogram, Sylhet and other parts of the country regularly come here to purchase footwear. Besides, many shoe manufacturers of Dhaka have been shifting to Bhairab on a regular basis," he said.
"Every year, 300 new factories are set up in Bhairab," Karim added.
The footwear industry started its journey in the region through the efforts of the late shoemaker Ibrahim Miah, who hailed from Kalikaprasad village of Bhairab. He started the business here after shifting his shoe factory from Old Dhaka to his village in order to get out of the clutches of extortionists and high production costs in Dhaka.
In the 1950s, Ibrahim fled to India, becoming a worker in a footwear factory. Within one year, he took Renu Miah, Rupa Gazi and Hira Gazi to Kolkata and engaged them in the profession. Gradually, he took several hundred people to Kolkata and involved them in this profession.
After several years, these people came back to Dhaka and started a footwear business.
Rafiqul Islam, owner of Victor Shoes in Kalikaprasad village, now in his 70s, said, "After coming back from Kolkata, Ibrahim Bhai convinced his relatives and friends to set up a shoe factory. Then he established a small shoe factory in Bangshal of Old Dhaka.
"In the beginning, Ibrahim Bhai could make a profit of Tk5-Tk6 on every dozen shoes. Life for everybody engaged in the business was going on fine as investment in the business was not much. Later, a large number of people from Bhairab got involved in the footwear business and so the footwear factories in Dhaka went into the grip of Bhairab's people."
Rafiqul himself started the business in Dhaka 50 years ago.
Two decades after liberation, many footwear businessmen, including Rafiqul, were doing fine in Dhaka without any big trouble. But, towards 1990, extortionists in Old Dhaka held the businessmen hostage.
Monu Miah, 60, owner of Sarder Shoes in Bhairab town, said, "At the time extortionists used to enter the factories with turmeric in their hands and ask us, 'What is this?' We answered that it was Haldi (turmeric). Then they replied, 'Chada Deo Jaldi (give extortion money quickly).' It spread panic among us, which drove us to Bhairab from Dhaka."
Besides, the production cost in Dhaka was increasing, he added.
Bhairab footwear industry grew fast
The transportation of footwear products to different markets of the country has been smooth and easy. Buyers from Chattogram, Noakhali, Feni, Tangail, Mymensingh, Kishoreganj, Narayanganj, Sylhet and Dhaka can easily carry the products through the Bhairab River. Besides, for people of Rajshahi and Khulna, it is easier to take shoes from Bhairab than from Dhaka as road communication between the regions is good.
Moreover, labour cost is low in Bhairab.
So, shoe makers of the district can supply the products at cheaper prices.
There are several big wholesale and retail footwear markets, including Haji Market, Mizan Market, Shahidullah Kaiser and Kanchan Miah Market, Godhuli City Market, Haji Lal Miah Market, Kalu Miah Market and Kalam Market in Bhairab. There are at least 2,000 wholesale footwear shops in these markets, according to businessmen.
Quality and price
Around 80 percent of the factories produce average quality shoes. The wholesale price of a pair of shoes is Tk100, whereas the price of a pair of shoes for children is Tk25-Tk30. Most of the factories use plastic, foam and Rexine to produce the footwear.
However, the owners of the factories and the shoe makers claimed that they produce all types of shoes in accordance with buyers' demands.
Liton Miah, owner of China Shoe Factory in Haji Market, said, "All kinds of footwear, including sandals, pencil heels and flat heels, made of leather and other material are being produced here. But the quality depends on prices."
On a visit to the footwear hub, many factories were found producing good quality footwear for the country's renowned brands.
Ershad Ali, who owns the Lace Brand factory, said the minimum price of a pair of shoes at his factory was Tk200. He produces shoes for some big brands in the country. More than 200 shoemakers are employed in his factory.
"This year, I got orders to make 45,000 shoes for Bata and 30,000 for Pran RFL," he said.
Ershad gets Tk500 to Tk1,500 per pair of shoes from the companies.
Backward linkage industry
Centred around the footwear industry, a backward linkage industry has developed in this region. There are 1,000 shops dealing in such materials as leather, Rexine, foam, heels, covers, pasting, threads and solutions, all required in the manufacture of shoes. The footwear manufacturers now do not have to go to Dhaka for buying the materials. Besides, there are 55 packaging factories in the region.
Lack of management
As the factories were established through individual initiatives, there is a severe lack of waste management systems. Besides, there is no safety measure for workers.
Recently students of the Entrepreneurship Economics Programme at the Dhaka School of Economics, an under-graduate and post-graduate institution of Dhaka University, went on a field visit to Bhairab. They prepared a report based on their visit, noting that the footwear industry in Bhairab is affecting workers' health and the environment, as the industry operates by using manual methods. Low quality chromium and various acids are used in manufacturing footwear, which increases the risk of cancer among workers.
Besides, due to an absence of government patronage, small businessmen cannot have their businesses flourish, according to the DSE.
Prof Mahbub Ali of the DSE said, "The main problem of the factories is producing shoes by manual methods. Apart from using low quality material, old designs of shoes are being copied. There is no waste management system in the factories, which poses a grave threat to human health and the environment."
Through public and private financing and provision of training, this small industry could be developed into a large industry, he said.
No bank loan facilities, dependence on NGOs
There are no bank loan facilities to assist the expansion of the footwear industry. The owners of the factories have to run their organisations by taking loans from NGOs at high interest rates. However, the entrepreneurs are being provided loans on easy terms under Peoples Oriented Programme Implementation (POPI) to develop entrepreneurs and workers, according to Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation.
Shah Nazmul Haque, project manager of POPI, said, "We are working to provide 5,000 shoe makers (craftsmen) with financial help and training. Designers with a background in university education are training them. No additional interests are imposed on the loans given to them for installing modern machinery."
POPI has a project to recycle the waste of the footwear industry, said Nazmul.
Government's help sought
Abdul Karim, president of the Bhairab Footwear Factory Owners' Association, said the industry had generated employment in the district.
"Now if the government gives us the opportunity to transport our products to different parts of the country through using rail, the footwear producers of Bhairab will get proper prices for their products," he said.