Mirpur Benarasi Palli is losing Eid sales to Covid-19 and the movement restrictions put in place to contain the second wave of the pandemic.
Before it could recover from the losses incurred ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr last year, a fresh countrywide strict shutdown was imposed on April 14 at the beginning of the month of Ramadan this year.
Sales which accounted for 30-40% of pre-pandemic business over the last 10 months after the withdrawal of the previous restriction plummeted to rock bottom.
"It [sales] is almost nil now," said Asir Ahmed, proprietor of Mahmuda Saree House at the Palli.
With the bleak possibility of making profits before the upcoming festival, shop owners are anxious about how to pay back loans and give salaries to workers.
According to the Benarasi Palli Shop Owners Association, the market has at least 130 shops providing livelihoods to 15,000 weavers, artisans, salesmen and entrepreneurs.
Eid sales amounted to Tk35-40 crore before the pandemic, making up 14-16% of the annual turnover of the market.
During a recent visit by The Business Standard, no customers were seen to visit the shops.
"People are not leaving home amid the lockdown. We have sold only one piece of saree in the last three days," said Shah Neoaz, salesman of a shop named Dia Saree.
Benarasi Palli is a place well known for wedding sarees and katan sarees of a wide price range. People also visit the Palli to buy silk sarees, jamdani, georgette, cotton sarees and shalwar kameez sets priced between Tk 700 and Tk 45,000.
"Our main business is during the wedding season [in winter], but sales were poor last time as big celebrations had been discouraged and community centres were closed. We are going to lose Eid business too," said shop owner Asir Ahmed.
Sarees available at the Palli are made by weavers in Dhaka's Mirpur, Narsingdi, Tangail, Bogura and Pabna. Cotton sarees are imported from China and India.
Salesmen at the Palli normally get Tk5,000-25,000 a month, but the outlets have been able to pay them only partially amid the decline in business.
Deadlines for a payment of bank loans loom as a greater threat at a time when the shops are already been struggling to pay staff salaries.
Mohsin Hossain, managing partner of Maisha Benarasi House, said, "I have to pay Tk 60,000 a month against my bank loan. We were relieved from paying instalments for two months last year but do not know what will happen this year."
Moreover, traders said, 7.5% VAT on sales was an additional pressure on them.
Nasir Ahmed, a weaver and proprietor of Sama Silk, said VAT should be decreased as "we are under the cottage industry."
Weavers need protection
Muslims, who migrated from Benaras, today known as Varanasi, to Bangladesh during the partition of India in 1947, have been making Benarasi Katan sarees in Mirpur since the 1950s.
According to the Mirpur Benarasi Primary Weavers Association, around 7,500 weavers used to make Katan sarees in the Mirpur camp area in 1996. Now, the association has only 1,800 members. Many have died or left the profession.
Around 7,500 weavers used to make Katan sarees in the Mirpur camp area in 1996. Now, the association has only 1,800 members. Many have died or left the profession
There are only 700 weavers who make sarees on handlooms.
Local people say that the number of weavers has been gradually declining as cheap and machine-made products from India have flooded the Bangladeshi market.
"A weaver takes 12-15 days to make a saree and he gets Tk 2,500-4,000 per saree. Many weavers were evicted from the area, which was taken over for government development works," said Md Rafique, president of Ward-3 Mirpur Benarasi Primary Weavers Association.
Besides, the pandemic has made the prospect of the industry's survival grimmer.
A rehabilitation scheme was taken up in the 1980s for these weavers, but it did not take practical shape.
Rafique demanded that the government shift the weavers to Bhasantek Benarasi Palli". The Palli had been planned on 40 acres of land. As he said, "We also demand that the government give protection to the families of weavers through life insurance."