How an EPZ transformed thousands of lives | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 22, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:26 AM, January 22, 2021

How an EPZ transformed thousands of lives

Uttara EPZ in Nilphamari emerges as a hub of economic wellbeing and empowerment for women

It is a transformation out of a fairy tale. A land once characterised by thatched houses and abject poverty now dotted with sturdy brick and tin residences and the unmistakeable signs of people relishing life's comforts.

Sounds blare out from programmes running on colour televisions while quality furniture give off an air of comfort and dressing tables showcase a variety of cosmetics. Ask for in any house, you are sure to get a cool glass of water poured right out of a refrigerator.

It is a far cry from Monga, a period between mid-August and mid-November after completion of Aman paddy transplants, when people had to do with half empty stomachs every day for want of work.

And all it took was an export processing zone (EPZ) and a decade of perseverance.

Uttara EPZ at Sangolshi union in sadar upazila of Nilphamari district continues to emerge as a hub of economic power and empowerment for women in the northern region of Bangladesh.

It is not only giving a boost to production and export strength of the country's economy but also bringing about remarkable changes in the socio-economic scenario in this underdeveloped region.

The zone currently employs 28,000 workers, 70 per cent of whom are women and who are being paid Tk 35 crore in monthly salary.

This injection of money is stimulating the local economy in the northern districts of Nilphamari, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Panchagarh, Thakurgaon and Lalmonirhat.

This led to an upgradation of living standards and outlooks of rural people and also had other spillover effects: a reduction in child marriages, yearning for education, healthy food habits, behaviour and sanitation etc.

"Only a few years ago, poor parents used to take the girl child to be a burden and marry off them even at age of 12 to 14 years," said historian, social worker and a recognised Bangla Academy author, Jahangir Alam Sarker.

Now there is genuine effort to keep them in schools as getting a job in the EPZ requires a secondary school certificate (SSC) or junior school certificate (JSC), he said.

This has increased the literacy rate among girls which also enlightened society. "Now they regard them as assets as they are earning in the EPZ, preventing child marriage effectively," he added.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the EPZ on 214 acres of land in 2001 during the 1996-2001 tenure of the government aiming to ensure equitable development throughout the country.

Soon, foreign investors were attracted to the area's cheap workforce and lowest land rent compared to the country's other EPZs: only $1.25 per square metre a year.

The zone now has 180 industrial plots, of which 134 have been allotted and 12 more are in the works.

There are nine foreign investors there including ones from China, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom alongside 15 local firms who have set up 24 factories in total injecting Tk 1,800 crore altogether, informed the EPZ officials.

The total export earnings from the zone since its commissioning stand at Tk 11,662 crore, as the buyers are from European countries, North and South America, South Africa, and Australia, said Bepza General Manager (public relations) Nazma Binte Alamgir.

Dialogues are ongoing between Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (Bepza) and Japanese investors to create new area for investment here, informed Bepza sources.

During a visit to the EPZ, this correspondent found the female workers, mostly from once poverty-stricken families, hard at work utilising their expertise.

Now they produce export-oriented goods of world class brands, the names of which they never heard of in the past.

The products include internationally reputed brands of footwear and leather goods, spectacles and sunglasses, wigs, replica toys of world-renowned car brands, garments accessories, coffins, furniture and mobile phone parts.

The spectacle factory of China-based Mazen (Bangladesh) Industries is said to be one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Workers here churn out frames of world class brands under the watchful eyes of local and foreign supervisors.

Oasis Transformation Ltd of the UK produces coffins made of cane and other natural materials for export to countries in America and Europe.

Hong Kong-based Evergreen Products Factory (BD) fabricates 3 million pieces of top quality wigs, hair pieces, braids and high-end human hair extensions a month for the fashion world market.

Dolls and toys, especially replica cars of globally renowned brands, are the speciality of Sonic (Bangladesh). One worker there is Mollika Akhtar, 21, of Bochapara village in sadar upazila.

She said her day labourer father arranged her marriage right after she passed her JSC but she prevented it with the help of her schoolteachers.

"A few years ago I joined here and now get Tk 13,000 to Tk 14,000 a month as salary with overtime," said Akhter.

"I also managed to employ my brother and sister in two other factories, taking our total family income to Tk 30,000 to Tk 32,000," she said.

She is soon to get married with a colleague.

Couple Jahanur Islam, 26, and his wife Liza Akhtar Moni, 24, of Angarpara village in Khansama upazila of Dinajpur have been working at an Evergreen factory for four years, jointly earning Tk 26,000 to Tk 28,000.

In the early days they used to come to work from their home some eight kilometres away hiring auto-rickshaws.

For the past one year, they have been coming on a motorcycle purchased through convenient monthly deposits.

Hailing from an adjacent Champatali village, Sathi Akhtar, 22, works at Mazen for an average salary of Tk 14,000 a month.

But what she did saving parts of that money was no less extraordinary: buying four decimals of land and erecting a brick and tin-roofed residence to call her own on moving out from a thatched one on a rented land.

Mostofa Sohrab Chowdhury Titu, president of the Rangpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries, perfectly epitomises the transformation the zone brought about, "It is a peaceful, silent revolution towards development." 

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