Sakhawat Hossain, 42, a handloom weaver in Tangail, has been in his ancestral trade for 20 years. With 21 handloom machines in his factory, he used to conduct his business with about 60 workers in two shifts.
He was leading a comfortable life with his business and so were those who worked for him.
But last year, when the pandemic hit the country, the production of his company came to a halt and sales went down dramatically.
Initially, he tried to get loans to somehow manage to continue his handloom business but he had no luck with it. Within a short period, Hossain was forced to close down his factory. He now sells vegetables at a local kitchen market.
"Our income came to an absolute halt once the lockdowns were imposed but we had to take care of our expenses. I tried to get loans to keep my business afloat but I was not successful. So now I have started selling vegetables and many workers of my handloom factory have also moved on to other professions," said Hossain.
Unfortunately, Hossain's story is not an isolated one. Since the pandemic started, Tangail's traditional weaving industry has been struggling and hundreds of handloom weavers have had to find other sources of income. All this has put the existence of the industry at threat.
According to the industry insiders, the handloom factories have been closed since 26 March last year and the yarns in the loom were severely damaged by insects due to inactivity in the factories.
Then came the flood. Due to the prolonged flood, many factories were submerged in water. After that, the second wave hit in full force. Amid all these without any support from the government, the entire weaving industry has been suffering.
Last year, the local handloom owners had a target to sell sarees of more than Tk107.13 crore but as the sales went down, most sarees have remained unsold.
After the first wave of the pandemic subsided this year, many factory owners had to sell the sarees and loom in their stock at incredibly low prices. Several weavers stockpiled sarees that they made for last year's Boishakh but could not sell and hoped to make up for the loss during this year's Bangla New Year. But unfortunately, that did not happen.
This year, a target was set to produce sarees worth Tk110 crore but due to the Covid-19 situation, the target has not been met so far.
According to Bangladesh Handloom Board (BHB) sources, BHB in Tangail has two basic centres, which work on the development and progress of the traditional handloom industry in the district.
One at Balla in Kalihati upazila caters to Ghatail, Madhupur, Dhanbari, Gopalpur, Bhuapur and Kalihati upazilas, while the other at Bajitpur in Sadar upazila focuses on Delduar, Basail, Mirzapur, Nagarpur, Sakhipur and Sadar upazilas.
The two centres have registered 49 Primary Weavers Associations (Prathomik Tanti Samity) and four Secondary Weavers Associations (Madhyomik Tanti Samity).
Some two-lakh people involved in this industry have lost their income since the beginning of the pandemic
Of the 27,931 handlooms of 4,391 factory owners under the two associations, 2,673 handlooms had gone out of operation in the past two years, according to BHB officials.
Those that had continued running shut operations abiding by the 26 March government directive.
Since then, the handloom industry in Tangail had been incurring losses of about Tk1.88 crore per day on an average, they said.
Raghunath Basak, president of the Tangail Saree Businessmen's Association and owner of Jogeshwar and Co, said that some two-lakh people involved in this industry have lost their income since the beginning of the pandemic.
Under such dire circumstances, Neel Kamal Basak, a saree weaver and trader from Pathrail, known as the capital of Tangail sarees, requested the government to provide incentives to this sector as well as requested the authorities to take steps to create a designated market for woven sarees.
About the importance of assistance from the central authority, Kalachand Basak, vice-president of the Tangail District Weavers' League said, "Weavers will not be able to get back on their feet without interest-free loans and government incentives."
Khan Ahmed Shuvo, president of the Tangail Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also urged the government to help the weavers of Tangail to protect the much-celebrated industry.