Gaibandha Sweater Palli expanding against all odds
For decades now, a community of weavers in Gaibandha has been producing over 20 varieties of warm clothing items without any modern technology, transportation or banking support.
About Tk 500 crore worth of warm clothes, including sweaters, mufflers, socks, caps and cardigans, are made in the area each year, according to local traders.
There are around 300 wholesale shops in the area that collectively sell about Tk 3-4 crore worth of the products each day, they said.
A market named Kochashahar-Nawarhat Sweater Palli in Gaibandha's Gobindaganj upazila is the focal point of this local industry, where at least 50,000 weavers from all over the district are involved.
Kochashahar Shilpanagari is located 50 kilometres away from the district town of Gaibandha and 11 kilometres away from the upazila town of Gobindaganj.
The epoch of how this little garment industry came to be begins with the story of just one man.
In 1930, Rahim Uddin of Pepulia village under Kochashahar union tried to escape acute poverty by travelling to Kolkata for work.
There, he worked in a socks factory for 13 years but after failing to adequately provide for his family from abroad, Uddin returned home with two handlooms.
Thanks to his experience in Kolkata, Uddin was then able to start producing socks in his village. His success later encouraged other locals to bring handlooms from Pakistan to make both socks and mufflers.
Since then, the business has continued to spread to the adjacent villages.
After the Independence War in 1972, the government started importing some old cotton warm clothes and the Kochashahar Shilpa Palli was established, said Mizanur Rahman, president of the Nawarhat Hosiery Owners Samity.
In 1990, local traders imported some handlooms from India to weave sweaters. Since then the sweater industries in Kochashahar area started flourishing and expanded to over 20 adjacent villages under the Gobindaganj upazila.
However, the weavers struggled to manage raw materials until 1995, when some other weavers from Bogura's Adamdighi upazila found rejected yarns in Dhaka's Narayanganj. They also brought some modern power looms from Dhaka to the Shaul Bazar and Kochashahar area.
On the other hand, local weavers of Bogura's Shaul Bazar then started producing yarn from the rejected garments and created a market worth Tk 200 crore annually. Now, the Kochashahar weavers and traders buy their yarns from the Shaul bazar.
By 2005, the industry got expanded to over 40 villages under Gobindaganj and Bogura's Sonatala and Shibganj upazila, which caused the revenue to see a sharp fall because of overproduction.
Therefore, many businessmen left the trade.
But since 2010, they started making profits again by including some modern power looms and quality designs, Rahman said.
During a recent visit to the area last December, this reporter found that weavers from almost every village under the Kochashahar union were busy producing warm clothes.
Rahman said there are nearly 3,000 families that have their own handlooms.
There are 50,000 people in the industry and among them, 60 per cent are women, he added.
Md Amir Sheikh, owner of Aziz Garments, a wholesaler of warm clothes in Keraniganj, told The Daily Star that around 60-70 traders from Dhaka, Keraniganj, Narayanganj visit the Kochashahar's Nawarhat bazar to buy clothes worth Tk 3-7 lakh every year.
"Traders from Dhaka used to visit the remote Kochashahar village market as the price of warm clothes there is cheaper than in Dhaka," Sheikh said.
Asaduzzaman Mojnu, owner of Kashmiri Fashion in Nawarhat bazar, said he produces 50,000 to 80,000 sweaters every year worth around Tk 2.4 crore.
Anisur Rahman, another local warm clothes maker of the Kochashahar Sweater Palli, produces around 50,000 to 60,000 special warm blouses worth Tk 87 lakh every year.
"But due to the short winter this year, I have to sell this blouse in the next year at lower prices," Rahman said.
Among the 50,000 workers, some make yarn from bobbins while others sew clothes, do embroidery, piping, attach buttons or packaging.
Ayesha Khatun, who works for the Nazim-Nirab Hosiery, mainly does piping and buttoning.
"After finishing my homestead work, I earn Tk 4,000-5,000 each month," she said.
Amid a lack of banking support, the SME foundation chose Kochashahar Shilpa Nagari as a cluster and started distrusting loans from a Tk 5 crore fund since 2018.
However, many small industry owners alleged that they are not getting any such loans.
Among them, Akramul Hossain, owner of the Bishal Hosiery, said there are 10-13 weavers working in his socks factory.
"I tried twice to get loan from the SME Foundation but it denied giving loan to a small trader like me," he added.
Asked, Abu Monjur Saif, assistant general manager for cluster development of the SME Foundation, told The Daily Star that the traders who are bankable are getting loans.
"We have a contact with the local Brac Bank to distribute loans for the Kochashahar cluster," he said.
When contacted, Nurul Islam Parvez, officer of the Brac Bank's branch in Gobindaganj, said they distributed loans to 60 manufactures worth around Tk 3.5 crore in the Kochashahar area last year.
Nawarhat Hosiery Owners Samity President Rahman went on to say that although there are huge sales every day during winter, there are no banks in the area to handle the large transfers.
When contacted, Ramkrishana Barman, upazila nirbahi officer of Gobindaganj, said "We are aware of the problems. The weavers of the Kochashahar area are producing warm clothes worth over Tk 500-600 crore annually and the government also is getting good revenue from them."
But the area lacks good transport facilities and stable mobile network, he said.
"I have already contacted and urged the mobile operators to establish a strong network here. I have also urged some bank authorities to set up new branches here."
"We also sent a plan to the department concerned to acquire 3 acres of land to set up a training centre for the artisan and weavers," Barman added.