Some 4,000 community centres across the country have incurred a loss of around Tk2,000 crore as they have been forced to shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic since March last year.
According to Bangladesh Community Centre, Convention Hall, and Catering Association, 20% of the community centres have shut down permanently and about 25 lakh people involved in the sector have been living a miserable life due to the crisis.
Kawser Talukder, 56, built a community centre in the Lalbagh area of Old Dhaka three years ago by investing Tk1.2 crore, the money he had earned with 15 years of hard labour as an expatriate in Japan.
But he had to shut down the community centre in March 2020 when the pandemic first hit the country and the government declared a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
The businessman has faced a big loss as the government has not allowed community centres to reopen in the last 14 months. However, it has permitted hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls to continue business on a limited scale maintaining health safety rules.
"I have sold the furniture of the community centre at Tk6 lakh during Covid-19. At present, I have a bank loan of Tk80 lakh. I continued paying Tk3 lakh per month in rent during the lockdown, thinking the situation would be over soon," Kawser told The Business Standard.
"At last, I was forced to leave the business a few days ago. I could not bear the expense of income tax, VAT, holding tax, electricity bill, gas bill, water bill etc. I had no ability to pay my employees also. Now, I have come to my hometown Munshiganj leaving Dhaka," he added.
Not only the community centre owners, many people involved with the sector including event managers, chefs, waiters, dish cleaners, vegetable-fish-meat suppliers etc have also been suffering due to income loss amid the pandemic.
Mohammad Munjur Alam, manager of Priyanka Community Centre, said, "I have been completely unemployed for the last fourteen months. I have been forced to send my wife and two children to my father-in-law's house as I have no income in Dhaka."
Sohan Hasan worked as a waiter at the White Hall Community Centre. He said, "I have been living in my village in Chandpur since the community centre was closed during the lockdown. I have not been able to find a job here yet."
According to Bangladesh Community Centre, Convention Hall, and Catering Association, the sector worth Tk10,000 crore has been facing an existential crisis as the community centres have not reopened yet.
As per the association, there are 400 community centres in the capital alone. Fifty percent of the country's community centres in the country are built in rented houses. The government receives about Tk250 crore in revenue from this sector every year.
Nazmul Hasan, event manager and decorator at Orchid Garden, said, "I used to do decorations for weddings or social events. I used to run my family with an income Tk20,000 per month. Now I am completely unemployed. I am running my family by borrowing money. I don't know what to do."
Al Amin, former chef of Rupsha Community Centre which has shut down recently, said, "I could not find a job in any other community centre. I don't know anything other than the work of a chef. I don't know what I would do if the community centres aren't open."
Bangladesh Community Center, Convention Hall, and Catering Association President Shah Zakir Hossain told The Business Standard, "Each community centre is set up in an area of at least 5,000 to 30,000 square feet, where operating at 50% capacity would easily be possible following the health rules. We demand the government to reopen all community centres."
Association secretary Monir Hossain said, "Despite the huge losses amid the pandemic, we did not get any help from the government. We want financial support from the government. The bank loan repayment period should be extended and VAT-tax should be waived for the time being. The government should allow the community centres to reopen with 50% capacity maintaining health rules like hotels and restaurants. Otherwise, it is not possible for this business to survive."
"If the government does not reopen the community centres soon, we will go on a hunger strike," he added.
The SME Foundation is overseeing the lending to small and medium entrepreneurs from the government's stimulus package. Officials of the foundation said that community centres are not eligible to get assistance from this fund.
Mofizur Rahman, managing director of the SME Foundation, told The Business Standard, "Only those who are directly involved in production are eligible for getting assistance from the government's stimulus fund. Community centres are not directly involved in production of anything. So, they are not eligible for getting assistance from the stimulus fund provided by the government for the SME entrepreneurs."