The Covid pandemic dealt a devastating blow to the traditional loom industry in Kushtia's Kumarkhali that had already been struggling with a slumping business.
Before the pandemic, the industry was in a bad shape due to a power supply crisis and rising prices of raw materials. The pandemic has essentially expedited the process of its decline.
The Kumarkhali loom industry has suffered an annual loss of Tk 140 crore due to diminished sales during the pandemic. Factories are closing down one after another. About 50% of the people involved in this industry are now unemployed. Although the sector is listed for government incentives, it received little to nothing, according to people linked with the industry.
It will be impossible to survive in this business without the government's support, they said.
According to the Kushtia Handloom Board, there were more than 80,000 weaver families in the district at one time. The industry had 15,000 Khatkhati (traditional loom equipment) looms, 45,000 handlooms and 20,000 electric looms. It used to meet 63 per cent of the country's demand for coarse cloth.
According to the Kumarkhali Factory Association, 400 of 1,000 loom factories in Kumarkhali have been shut down. Directly and indirectly, out of 150,000 workers in this sector, about 60-70 thousand have lost their jobs or quit altogether and changed their profession. In pre-covid times, 2.9 crore pieces of lungi, 15 lakh pieces of bedcovers and 70 lakh pieces of towels were produced, but now the production has decreased by about 50 percent. Annual earnings dropped to Tk 160 crore from the previous year's Tk 300 crore. Nearly 95% of the loom industry traders have bank loans.
The owner of Rana Loom Factory, Masood Rana, who has been in the business since 2008, told TBS that in normal times he used to sell towels worth Tk 40 lakh a year, but last year his sales did not reach Tk10 lakh.
"Half of the products haven't sold yet. Fifteen among thirty workers left as I couldn't pay them," Rana said, adding that he is struggling to repay his bank loan installment of Tk 15 lakh.
"Business prospects are gloomier in the days ahead," he said
The situation for Abdus Samad, owner of Three Brothers Lungi Limited, is similar. He managed to sell 12 lakh lungis last year compared to regular sales ranging from 30-40 lakhs.
Mehedi Sheikh, assistant general manager of the Kushtia branch of the Handloom Board, told TBS that workers involved in the loom industry were living in misery during the Covid period. The loom owners are in a financial crisis. "We have already identified 175 weaving mills to be provided with financial assistance, though this is very little compared to their losses," he said.
Atiyar Rahman worked as a weaver in Kumarkhali Alam Textile for 32 years. He became jobless after the factory was closed down during the pandemic.
"I used to earn Tk 8,000 a month. Now I am struggling to make ends meet. This is the only work I have learned; I have not learned to do any other work in my life," he said in despair.
A yarn shop owner, Habibur Rahman Nipun, who owns a store in Sherkhandi area of Kumarkhali, said that the price of yarn has also gone up in the domestic market during the pandemic.
He added that due to the closure of some looms and increase in yarn price, his sales have halved.
To save the sector the government must provide immediate incentives to the affected people, train weavers with state-of-the-art machineries, and extend the installment period for those who have taken out bank loans by another six months, according to Nipun.
He also demanded the revocation of bond licenses, rules for importing yarn at 5% interest for all traders, and steps towards modernization of the industry with the latest technology and ensuring uninterrupted electricity supply,
Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) Chairman Mostaque Hasan told TBS that BSCIC is focused on a revival of the collapsed loom industry.
BSCIC has already undertaken a plan to build a new industrial city in Kumarkhali on 500 acres of land, of which 100 acres are to be allotted for the loom industry, he said
Back in 2018, initiatives were taken to revive the loom industry of Kumarkhali. Tk. 117 crore was allocated for setting up five training centres and a fashion design institute; and to facilitate the marketing of loom products, initiatives were taken to set up promotion centres at permanent markets in Dhaka's Karwan Bazar and Kushtia's Kumarkhali Bazar.
Asked about the progress of these projects, handloom board official Mehedi Sheikh said, "We were not able to complete the work in full force, but the work on the training centres and the Institute of Fashion Design is currently operational on a limited scale. In addition, 90% state-of-the-art machineries have been imported for the 'Free Service Center'. Hopefully within the next couple of months, these will be installed and most of the issues, including the power supply problem, will be solved.
Mehedi Sheikh is hopeful that upon the completion of the project unemployed weavers will be able to undergo training and it will be possible to produce three times more than at present.
Speaking on the crisis faced by the loom industry, Mofizur Rahman, managing director of the SME Foundation, told TBS that most couldn't receive incentives due to lack of communication with the local loom owners.
"We will try to ensure incentives for the affected by making a fresh list so that no one eligible for the incentive is left out," he said.