The salt processing industry of Jhalakathi is on the verge of collapse due to various reasons including fuel supply shortage.
Among the 20 refineries by the Basanda River in the district, 11 have already closed down and the other nine are in dire straits.
While the workers union blame a lack of uninterrupted gas supply as the main reason for this, the owners claim other reasons.
Out of the nine currently operational factories in the district, three are centrifuge (semi-vacuum) type and the rest are traditional refineries.
These factories produce 3,500 tonnes of edible salt and 7,000 tonnes of industrial salt every month.
“To survive in the current market, many traditional refineries upgraded to vacuum systems. However, now they are struggling due to the ongoing gas crisis. Without a proper fuel supply we will not be able to compete with the refineries in other districts,” said Jamal Sharif, owner of Sharif Salt Mill.
History of Jhalakathi’s salt industry
Salt industries in the district became popular in the late nineteenth century after Jhalakathi was declared a municipality in 1875 by the British government.
Raw salt was brought from Cox’s Bazar and processed in the factories. After packing that salt, it was sent to different parts of the country. The district was given port status during the British period for this industry.
Being primarily a riverside area, this industry developed rapidly in Jhalakathi due to the ship-centric communication system. For the collection of raw materials and transportation of manufactured salt, sea routes are preferred. Because it is cheap and safe, wholesalers from different parts of the country transport their purchased salt by sea daily.
However, due to various reasons, the once famous industry of the districts is now facing extinction. As modern vacuum system factories with uninterrupted gas facilities are set up in other parts of the country, traditional salt factories are struggling to survive in the market.
Salt workers union leader Mustafa Howladar said the number of salt workers in the district has halved due to various problems. If the factories are modernised, more people will get employment opportunities.
Woman worker Sufia Begum said, “I have been working here for about 18 years. My family is dependent on my income. The prices of everything are on the rise. If the factory closes down, I do not know what to do.”
Salt Workers Union President Humayun Kabir said there is no labour crisis and the wages are fair.
“The main problem here is that the mills cannot be fully modernised due to gas shortage. Due to this, refineries in the district are falling behind in the competition,” he said.
Humayun further added that the factories in the district operate two to three days a week. He is worried that more salt workers may change professions due to the lack of work in this industry.
However, factory owners allege that the gradual increase in the wages of workers is one of the major reasons for some of the refineries being forced to close down.
The other major reason for the salt industry of Jhalkathi being under threat is the lack of navigability at the mouth of the Basanda River which prevents large ships to pass through.
Salauddin Ahmed Malek, president of Jhalakathi Industry and Merchants Association and owner of ARS Salt Industries, said Jhalakathi’s salt industry has somehow survived various crises.
“Mill owners have lost a lot of money during Covid-19. There is also the problem of gas supply shortage. A mill in Dhaka has a production cost of Tk 500 per unit, and ours is Tk 900. As a result of this difference, we are unable to compete with them in the market,” he said, adding that Jhalakathi salt industry will expand further if low-interest bank loans are arranged.
Salahuddin further added that some unscrupulous traders are importing sodium sulphate from India and China and selling it as table salt. They are cheap but harmful to the human body.
Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) Jhalakathi Deputy Manager Md Safaul Karim said, “We have plans to develop the salt industry in the district. As Padma Bridge is now operational, we will get a gas connection in the district very soon and have plans to modernise the refineries. Besides, the number of factories will also be increased through incentives.”
Jhalakathi District Commissioner Farah Nijhum Gul said that the government is ready to provide all kinds of cooperation to sustain this industry in Jhalakathi.
“We have identified the issues. If necessary, they will be provided loans through BSCIC,” she said.