The coronavirus crisis is having a devastating knock-on effect on the sari hub in Mirpur with customers all but ditching it. It has left the traders crying for government assistance to cover costs and pay workers after passing the peak seasons in the past year in pandemic gloom.
Metrorail project work has narrowed the rundown road leading to the Palli. So the wealthy customers began shopping in India before last year with visa formalities getting easy.
After the pandemic disruptions, the traders hoped to cover the costs and recoup losses during the Eid this year when the government allowed the shops and malls to reopen amid the lockdown.
Now they are staring at more losses as the wealthy turn to online shopping or nearby malls amid the second wave of contagion.
Besides traditional Banarasi, all sorts of saris are available in the Palli. On Friday -- the last weekly holiday before the Eid-ul-Fitr -- some shopkeepers were found desperately calling a few customers. Others were idling away the afternoon.
The handwoven Banarasi silk, with its intricate motifs and generous use of gold or silver zari -- or thread -- is widely sought after, especially by brides seeking to make a statement during the vibrant wedding season. But a pandemic-triggered slump in weddings and other social functions has also hit the business badly.
Md Mamun, manager of Nil Achol Saris, said their daily sales now do not cross Tk 25,000, which is peanuts to the brisk business they would do in normal times.
“People aren’t coming to us because of the coronavirus. They aren’t in a festive mood to shop. We could not sell saris last year. And things are no better this year,” he said.
The bigger shops like Nil Achol Saris still have some customers, but the smaller ones are in big trouble having very few or no customers at all. This has led them to sell saris at throwaway prices, Mamun said.
Mohsin Reza, a salesman at Lal Bou Banarasi, is also frustrated with the sale during Ramadan. “The coronavirus pandemic is raging. To make matters worse, the government has imposed a lockdown. And people don’t have money. How will they buy saris?”
The shop’s owner F Heal Uddin Ahmed said people in the clothing business always look forward to the Eid shopping seasons to turn a profit and slog through the rest of the year.
“Now we are facing the same situation one Eid after another,” he said, adding that the drop in wedding parties contributed to their losses as well.
“VIP customers are not stepping out of their homes for fear of the coronavirus. They are shopping online. For ordinary people buying a sari is a luxury now. They are struggling to put food on the table,” he said.
This is the most devastating crisis Masud Kabir Liton, manager of Mone Rekho Saris, has faced in his 22 years in the business.
“I don’t feel like talking about it anymore,” Liton voiced his exasperation. “People don’t have money. How will they buy saris? I wouldn’t have time to speak to you a few years ago. Now I’m reduced to waiting for customers.”
Sale has dipped by at least 75 percent, according to him.
LAYOFFS, UNCERTAIN BONUS
The owners have asked many of their employees at the Palli to look for other jobs while the rest of the workers are not sure whether they will get a bonus during Eid this year.
Alam of Tawsif Banarasi Fashion said he sacked nine employees, or half his workforce, during the pandemic.
“How will the owners pay if there is no sale? And I’m not sure whether I can pay a bonus this time. The other shops are facing a similar crisis.”
Liton of Mone Rekho Saris said they were forced to shed four jobs.
Helal, the owner of Lal Bou Banarasi, said he was worried that he may not be able to pay the people on his payroll festival bonus. “I’ve got rent and other bills to clear.”
During the 66-day lockdown in 2020, Dia Saris paid its staffers half their salaries, according to its owner Mohammad Quasem. No one got a festival bonus.
“We began paying 100 percent of the salaries when the situation gradually became normal. We thought about giving the employees both salary and bonus this time, but the lockdown and VAT have devastated our business.”
VAT, GOVERNMENT HELP
Quasem, who is also general secretary of Banarasi Palli Shop Owners Association, said many customers were not coming because they are afraid of paying VAT.
“Gausia, New Market, Bashundhara City are overcrowded. Is the fear of coronavirus gone there? Then why are the customers not coming here?” he asked before offering the answer. “It’s because of VAT.”
Alam of Tawsif Banarasi Fashion also partly blamed VAT for the customers not turning up. “It’s one of the reasons we don’t get many customers although it is relatively easy to keep physical distancing while shopping here.”
“Has the government done anything to help the 50-year old industry survive? The Indian government has done many things for the industry there,” said Quasem.
Helal, the owner of Lal Bou Banarasi, thinks only government assistance can help them ride out the storm.
“The government has supported many businesses. It will be of great help if the government supports us in any form - loan, anything,” he pleaded.
[Written in English by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]