The country's spectacles market has been witnessing spectacular growth over the last one decade – at the cost of burgeoning vision disorders among the population.
Patuatuli had its first shop "Kamal Optics" in 1948, and the biggest wholesale spectacles hub in Bangladesh now has more than 500 eyewear shops.
Traders in the Old Dhaka marketplace say the country's market size is around Tk1,000 crore, and it has been witnessing a 10% growth per year, thanks to increasing vision disorders prompted by long screen time, diabetes and hypertension.
Apart from Patuatuli, there are more than 10,000 glass traders across the country, with more than one lakh people involved in the industry directly or indirectly.
Bangladesh Optical Industries and Traders Association leader Sanaullah said the association has 250 registered members while there are more 5,000 eyewear shops across the country. On top of this, there are 50 importers who bring in glass frames and other accessories.
Completely import dependent market
The spectacles and other accessories market is completely import dependent. Although there are a few manufacturers who make plastic spectacles, their production is less than 2% of total demand.
Based in Dhaka's Mirpur, Smriti Optics manufactures metal frame glasses. However, the company has to bring in the raw materials from abroad.
Abshar Uddin, proprietor of Modern Optics in Patuatuli, said, "China will make your glasses at whatever price you want. If you tell the Chinese manufacturers to make spectacles at Tk10, they will do so."
Apart from the cheap rate of Chinese glasses, he said the import of the item is very easy, which helps keep the country's eyewear market totally import dependent.
Traders said they import plastic frames, reading frames, glass and screws of glasses. Due to the tariff structure on raw materials, spectacles making in the country is costly.
About 90% of spectacles imported into the country come from China. Apart from that, spectacles are also imported from South Korea, Italy, France, Germany, India and Thailand.
Lax monitoring on imports, prices
Despite a growing market and easy import process, most spectacles are brought in by false declaration and illegal means. There are allegations that spectacles are imported illegally or show a lower rate in import papers after managing customs officials.
In 2018, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) identified 40 traders in Chawkbazar, Zinjira and Patuatuli involved in bringing glasses in through illegal means.
According to the board, though traders charge Tk50-2,000 for spectacles and frames in the local market, the items are imported at Tk10-15.
Manjurul Haque Sikder, former president of the Bangladesh Optical Industries and Traders Association, told The Business Standard that some traders bring expensive spectacles showing the prices at Tk10-15.
"Again, the imported consignments are supposed to be examined thoroughly, but customs officials often do not do it," he claimed.
The NBR's revenue collection data also hint at a massive eyewear black market. The revenue board earned Tk103 crore in the 2019-20 fiscal year after identifying the 40 illicit traders. Earnings in the previous year amounted to only Tk15 crore.
The NBR collected Tk54 crore only from value-added tax (Vat) until January of the current fiscal year.
Spectacle lenses are usually out of Vat while traders pay 15% Vat for regular glasses.
NBR officials say spectacle importers mention very nominal prices in letters of credit (LCs). After bringing glasses in at low prices, they sell them at higher rates in the local market.
Again, most traders do not have Vat registration, with the result that the NBR remains in the dark about the total annual sales of the sector.
Diabetes, hypertension – costs of the burgeoning growth
Eye specialists say spending long hours staring at a mobile phone or computer screen is pushing up myopia, or short sightedness, while a pandemic-led prolonged home stay and lack of physical activities are contributing to diabetes and high blood pressure even among the young.
According to the Situation Analysis of Vision 2020 in the WHO South-East Asia Region in Bangladesh, 1.5% of adults in the country are blind while 21.6% have low vision.
Around 15 lakh children in Bangladesh are suffering from vision disorder, said the report.
Mominul Islam Badhon, consultant retina surgeon and uveitis specialist at Ispahani Eye Institute and Hospital, said many children have had to take glasses during the pandemic owing to spending prolonged screen time in the virus-led shutdown.
"The use of minus lenses spiralled. And lens power increased for those who already had glasses. Besides, we are getting more patients with headache and eye pain," Badhon told The Business Standard.
Meanwhile, Glaucoma Specialist Dr Siddiqur Rahman said patients with vision disorders are crowding the hospitals since they could not avail the treatment during the peak of the pandemic.
The health directorate said more than 2 lakh people availed eye treatment in 2020.
Bangladesh needs more eye specialists
According to the Ophthalmology Society of Bangladesh, the country has 1,300 eye specialists. There are about 100 more doctors specialised in retina and glaucoma.
Glaucoma Specialist Dr Siddiqur Rahman thinks the country with a population of 163 million needs more eye specialists as vision disorders are on the rise.
There are both public and private ophthalmology institutes in Bangladesh producing doctors specialised in eye related issues. The National Ophthalmological Institute and Hospital, Sheikh Fazilatunnessa Mujib Eye Hospital and Training Institute, and Ispahani Islamia Eye Institute and Hospital have been producing new doctors apart from treating eye patients at cheaper cost.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently announced a phase-wise setting up of community vision centres in all upazilas of the country.
On 11 March, she inaugurated the centres at 70 upazila health complexes in five divisions.
The prime minister said the government has already planned to set up 110 more vision centres to reach out to people with eye care at upazila level. ***