Shipbreakers to shipmakers
The bright red paint was splashing all over the clothes of Ismail Hossain, but nothing could cover the radiant smile of the youngman as he brushed on the colour to the deck of the 'Stella Maris'--the ship that heralds the return of Bangladesh to the global shipbuilding industry.
“It's exiting. This ship, made by our own hands, is going abroad. Wherever it goes, everyone will say, it is made in Bangladesh,” cheered the 17-year old painter yesterday, as the shipyard hurried to ready the vessel in time.
Today Ananda Shipyard, one of the biggest local shipbuilding companies, will deliver the 'Stella Maris, a vessel with a capacity of about 3,000 dead weight tones, to its Danish buyer Stella Shipping.
Yestreday, painters Ismail, Aynal, Rahim and hundreds of their colleagues at the Ananda Shipyard and Slipways on the northern bank of the river Meghna at Sonargoan, were in joyous mood, and they have good reason to celebrate.
Not since the first half of 19th century has Bangladesh been in the business of producing ships for global buyers. Now however local shipbuilders are working with about US$ 400 million worth of orders for over 40 vessels for buyers from Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Mozambique.
“It was my 25 years' dream to see Bangladesh as a shipbuilding nation. Now it is going to happen,” said Dr Abdullahel Bari, chairman of Ananda Shipyard.
A country that has become known as a nation for shipbreaking, is rapidly becoming a nation of shipmaking.
And the area does have a rich history in the shipbuilding industry with accounts found in the writings of many travelers who visited Bengal more than two hundred years ago. It is said that the British Navy used ships built in Bengal in the famous battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where Nelson defeated Napoleon's fleet.
But the industry, based mainly in Chittagong, started waning in the latter part of the nineteenth century due to the use of steam engines and the discriminatory policy of British colonial rulers who were determined to protect the shipbuilding industry in the United Kingdom, despite claims that Bengali ships were cheaper and more durable, according to Banglapedia.
Shipbuilding did not vanish, but retreated to focus on local demand and today there are about 300 small and large dockyards, generating about 100,000 jobs.
Now however the industry is changing with companies such as Ananda and The Western Marine Shipyard again building ships following global standards.
The success of these two companies has encouraged a number of companies such as Meghna Group of Industries, Rangs Group, Khan Brothers and Narayanganj Engineering & Shipbuilding to join the rally and grab the opportunities in the global shipbuilding market.
“I dreamt of building ships in my country when I saw people in other countries constructing them. It's great that we are now building ships after over one century,” said Md Sakhawat Hossain, managing director of Western Marine Shipyard Ltd.
Behind the resurgence of the industry is the global rise in the demand for new ships, especially smaller ones with a capacity below 15,000 dead weight tones (DWT). This has helped Bangladesh attract the attention of international shipping companies as traditional shipbuilding countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and Vietnam are not interested in building ships with under 20,000 DWT.
“There is demand for small vessels with capacity between 3,000-15,000 DWT. Bangladesh is getting orders from international shipping companies due to its cheap and good workers,” said CF Zaman, country manager of the ship inspection company Germanischer Lloyd in Bangladesh.
According to industry people, the global market for small vessels is about $400 billion with India the main competitor to Bangladesh.
“If we can grab one percent of the small vessel market it will be $4 billion," said Md Saiful Islam, chairman of Western Marine Shipyard.
Bangladesh, a riverine country, is getting orders from international shipping companies due to relatively cheap labour, industry experts said. But skilled workers, know-how and infrastructure have also helped Bangladesh gain the attention of shipping companies.
According to stakeholders, thousands of Bangladeshis are now employed in shipyards in Singapore, Korea and Dubai. Some of these workers have started to return to local shipyards.
“We have thousands of skilled workers working abroad. Some of them are coming back,” said Afruja Bari, managing director of Ananda Shipyard.
However the sector has to depend on importing almost all the raw materials, ranging from engines to electronics and sanitary items such as toilets and washbasins.
“Even after that our local value addition is about 30-35 percent due to having skilled manpower,” said Western Marine Managing Director Sakhawat Hossain, “Our value addition will be much if we can develop backward linkage in sectors such as electric cables and sanitary items.”
Experts, referring to the present 3-5 percent annual growth in global shipping tonnage, said the demand for vessels, especially smaller ones, will remain for the next eight years and Bangladesh can exploit the opportunity if the government takes a pragmatic look at the issue.
“There is no policy for the sector. But a pragmatic policy is urgently needed for allowing the industry to grow in a disciplined manner,” said Germanischer Lloyd Bangladesh's chief Zaman.
He said, “I am sure it will be a multi-billion dollar industry in coming days and export orders will reach the US$ 1 billion mark by 2011. We will have to frame a policy in the next six to 12 months.”
The workers of Ananda Shipyard have produced the Stella Mairs while also working hard to produce other vessels for Denmark, Germany and Mozambique. The Stella Maris, now at the anchorage of the Ananda Shipyard at the Meghnaghat, will sail for Denmark soon.
Like Islamil, Aynal, another young worker, is happy and sharing joy with his colleagues.
“It will remain in my memory for a long time.” said Aynal.