Development plans in Sylhet, especially those related to economic zones, have to be environment-friendly and suitable for the particular areas they are undertaken for, said stakeholders at a webinar.
They also demanded to create skilled manpower, community-based tourism, small scale industries, special economic zone for women entrepreneurs, proper feasibility assessments before implementing a development plan etc to ensure balanced development in the area.
Participants from different tiers of the society from Sylhet including entrepreneurs, civil society members, environmentalist, academics took part in the webinar titled "How livable and investment-friendly is Sylhet?" organised by The Business Standard.
Sharier Khan, executive editor, The Business Standard
I welcome you all to today's webinar. The webinar is a part of a series of discussions that The Business Standard has been organising on the occasion of its second anniversary. Today, our focus is on the greater Sylhet region. But there will be a broader picture.
We all know that huge development works are now being done in the country. The government has planned to establish 100 economic zones across the country by 2030 that are expected to create direct as well as indirect employment for one crore people and produce exports worth $40 billion annually.
Some of the economic zones are in the greater Sylhet division, including the Srihatta Economic Zone located on some 352 acres of land in Sherpur, Moulvibazar Sadar upazila. Besides, Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (Beza) has acquired 500 acres of land in Chunarughat upazila of Habiganj and about 450 acres in Gowainghat upazila of Sylhet for economic zones. In addition, plans are afoot to set up another economic zone on 1,000 acres of land in Sunamganj's Chhatak upazila, along with a private economic zone known as Chhatak Economic Zone.
Against the backdrop of the plans by the Beza to establish these economic zones, there are many factors to be considered. Civic amenities and infrastructures such as roads, electricity and water, along with factors like manpower and livability should be ensured in areas chosen for development. For example, water is the livestream of civilisation. If there is no water, there will be no civilisation. Without water development, any works would be costly.
The environmental issues have to be considered too. If we do mindless development work, the environment will be damaged. All of our panelists are going to address these issues today.
Barrister Moinul Hosain, entrepreneur
The only economic zone in Sylhet is the Sherpur Economic Zone (Srihatta Economic Zone). I have started a factory there after taking land. According to the Economic Zone Authority, at first the people of Sylhet showed no interest in taking land there. Various notifications were made and seminars held to make people interested in investing in the economic zone. However, so far, only four companies, including us, have taken land there. Authorities then gave DBL Brothers the rest of the lands.
We, the people of Sylhet, did not show interest in it. It is our weakness. But this is the only economic zone in Sylhet with gas connection. My company started working there in 2017. We will go into production in the next six months. However, there are some restrictions for the entrepreneurs in the economic zone.
For example, you cannot do business here like in Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC). You have to pay all the VAT and taxes here. An economic zone needs big industries but here we need spaces for relatively small industries so that they can come here leaving the city. It needs to be done to make the city beautiful.
My suggestion is for small industrial steps, not economic zones. If anyone wants to go into the economic zone, he needs an established business. Economic zones are not for small entrepreneurs. If someone does not start the factory within the stipulated time, the zone authorities will cancel the allotment of the plot. So, if anybody plans to take land in an economic zone without the plan to do business, that's not a good idea. It is not possible for economic zones anymore.
Sharnalata Roy, president, Sylhet Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries
Many countries, including Vietnam, have progressed economically with small industries. Sylhet's position in big industry is not very strong. Many women entrepreneurs want to allot plots in the economic zone and start production there. However, many of them do not have the capacity to do the necessary work to set up an industry including making a project proposal. There is no organisation in Sylhet to help them.
We want to have a place in the economic zone for women where they will get logistic support like in the Bangabandhu Hitech Park where entrepreneurs can get one step service with a trade licence. Similarly, the office of the economic zone should have arrangements for everything, including environmental clearance and banking support.
Factories in an economic zone can be set up focusing on the local resources. For example, if we set up a pineapple food processing factory in the Srimangal Economic Zone, the cost would be much lower there. There is a manpower shortage in Sylhet, especially of skilled labour. Once an economic zone is set up, a large number of workers will come from other regions. It would also be a challenge to ensure their accommodation and other facilities.
Besides, there are still many weaknesses in the transportation system. After setting up the zone, the issue of utilities (electricity, gas, water) should also be emphasised. BSCIC has a zone in Moulvibazar but the newcomers are not getting all the benefits there. That is why they are not being able to set up a factory there despite their will.
I would like to say something about setting up training centers for creating skilled manpower in Sylhet. There are some polytechnics here, but still we do not get the workers we need. If we want to create skilled workers from among the local people of Sylhet, then we have to set up technical training centers. If that is done, we do not have to hire workers from outside. Once the economic zone is established, there will be no shortage of manpower.
Sylhet is famous for tourism. Every tourist is not capable of staying at five-star or four-star hotels. So, we need some accommodations that people can afford. A hospital should be set up next to the economic zone. In addition, more universities could be set up. Finally, we demand a separate economic zone for women for establishing small industries within a small space.
Professor Zarina Hossain, architect and city planner, Leading University
Given the region's hilly areas, tea estates, water bodies, and its particular history and heritage, Sylhet could benefit from tourism similar to Nepal and Sri Lanka. In Sylhet, we have many stones but we cannot bring this into tourism. There are many modern machines that can grade stones. We can also make an artists' colony. These can be used to make small sculptures. But we lack creativity. As a child, we could see the panoramic view in the hilly areas of Sylhet. But that is no longer the case. Roads and hills have all been cut and destroyed. Now nothing can be seen except the dusty mountains. We are turning assets into liabilities.
We do not need only five-star hotels for tourists. We need community-based tourism where tourists will stay at the houses of local people. The reality is that we are separating tourism from the locals. If I run a resort here myself, what would I consider? Of course, local traditions, tea, mountains, water and history. These are the basic things of Sylhet that attract tourists. Once a cruise boat was launched in the Surma river. But that did not last long. There is dirt everywhere. Tourists usually like to walk but there is no space on the sidewalk. The corners of the city should be kept clean.
Many people in Sylhet live abroad. That is why we see billboards of different land developers in Sylhet. Marshlands are being destroyed for housing projects. There is no environmental responsibility. If people's livability increases, entrepreneurship will also increase. Many people in the country want to be entrepreneurs, but the problem is buying land, ensuring utility services. The small-scale informal sector has become a huge economy in the country.
Kawshik Saha, associate professor, department of architecture, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology
Economic zone is a modern concept that ensures a separate place for industries restricting setting up of factories scattered in different places. If we set up factories in residential areas, it would affect people and the surrounding environment.
Before establishing an economic zone in any area, the environmental impact, community, and feasibility assessments have to be done. Unfortunately, the reality is that these assessments are not conducted properly. If we could do that properly, the questions would not arise. The assessments are not done in the right way due to methodological complexities. That's why problems persist.
We acquire people's land for some money. But these lands are the source of livelihood for many people. We do not think about their income. Sometimes, we do not even pay adequate compensation. There are considerable weaknesses in the method of compensation.
Sylhet is a critical ecological zone and most of it is low-lying and frequently affected by floods. When we conduct development works, we have to consider the hydrological and flood system of the area to ensure that they are not affected.
Economic zones will result in rapid urbanisation. Are we aware of that? Many workers will come here from other regions to work and they will need accommodation, treatment, and education for children. For this, we need to consider how inclusive the whole process is. If such a zone is established, it needs to be studied whether it is in conflict with the local tourism industry.
Our development plans come from the top but it has to be undertaken through a bottom-up approach.
Abdul Karim Chowdhury Kim, general secretary, Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, Sylhet
Thousands of tourists flocked to Sylhet during the Victory Day holidays this year. Over 15,000 cars entered the area. Numerous hotels and restaurants have sprung up in Sylhet for these tourists. But are the people of the city able to take the pressure? As a result of such tourist pressure, the livability of the locals is being hampered.
Nowadays, we can see a huge traffic congestion in the city on weekends. Lots of tourists come to Srimangal where there are many tea gardens. Although you cannot enter a tea garden without permission, not everybody waits for that. Recently, there have been some unwanted incidents regarding this where tourists confront the women workers of tea gardens.
We are also doing social forestry by destroying natural forests which are damaging the habitat of wild animals. In Sylhet, people are getting a livable environment. There is no wildlife either. Habiganj is one of the worst districts in Bangladesh with dirt everywhere.
Many large investors are now involved in fisheries. Due to growing fish farming in Baikka Beel and surrounding areas of Srimangal, the existence of local fish species are under threat.
Many industrial establishments have sprung up in Chunarughat and land prices have gone up. Many people are buying motorcycles for their young children as they get money. But this has led to an increase in motorcycle accidents. Besides, river pollution has become a common issue. The Sutang River has become like black line due to wastes dumped by different industries.
So, if we want an economic zone, we have to think about how to get rid of the wastes there. We also have to think about agricultural lands. We have to carry out development work with everything in mind.
Taufiq Box Lipon, panel mayor, Sylhet City Corporation
We struggle to cope with the huge number of tourists who come to Sylhet during the holidays. We do not have enough manpower to handle the situation. Many tourists are not aware of the environment. So, they cause pollution. Many say there is no sidewalk in the city. However, I would say that the city has changed a lot in the last 10 years. We are working according to the master plan. Now there are many sidewalks. Regular operations are being conducted to rescue the sidewalks which have been occupied. Many people are being jailed and fined in these drives.
There are some other problems too. Water supply is disrupted if there is a power cut for an hour in the city. So, if we could ensure uninterrupted electricity, water distribution would be better. The government is giving a lot of money to the Sylhet City Corporation. We are building a new water plant. We need more time to solve all the problems. We hope that there will be no water crisis in the future.
Meanwhile, the two banks of the river are like dustbins. The occupiers have occupied these areas. However, the railway has some properties there and that's why we cannot conduct a drive. There are many plastic industries inside the city. Wastes from these industries are dumped in the drains which hamper drainage systems.
However, the economic zones which will be established in greater Sylhet will obviously create extra pressure on Sylhet city. We have to start thinking from now as to how we will cope with the situation.
Tanvir Ruhel, young entrepreneur
We do not have skilled manpower here. Most companies do not get skilled workers even after giving advertisements. The city is becoming less livable day by day. Young people go abroad after graduation as they are frustrated here. It is necessary to take measures so that they can increase their skill and stay in the country and feel safe to invest here.
The Sylhet city is better than other cities in the country but not as good as expected. Development is not possible only with concrete structures. There is no such thing as a traffic system here and no one follows that. Meanwhile, Gowainghat is the most important area for tourism. If there is an economic zone, then what would happen to tourism? We need to address these issues.
GM Shiblee, chairman, Bangladesh Tea Sangsad, Sylhet
Tea is one of the oldest traditional industries in the country. There used to be a surplus from the amount of tea we produced after the independence of the country. That's why it was possible for us to export tea. Now production has increased and so has the demand in our local market. So, we are not exporting right now. Tea consumption has increased tremendously in the country over the years. We are also trying to increase tea production. The tea workers here are being educated, albeit slowly. Moreover, the tea industry is contributing to our tourism industry.