People in Cumilla rush to the district town rail station not to just catch up trains, rather many go there when they need industrial goods and tools such as a welding or a drilling machine, or need to repair a kaput one.
The station-adjacent light engineering market – which goes by Motori – has around 120 small and medium factories on railway lands and the small ventures make industrial, construction and agri machinery. The annual sales of tools and parts surpass Tk100 crore.
More interesting is the tale of the industrial cluster that sprawled just from a few junk shops by the railroads in 1958.
"In the Pakistani period, this place had few junkshops from which some poor people used to make their ends meet. There were around ten workers at the entire junkyard who would collect trash, short out those and resell the reusable items," said Aman Ullah, owner of a steel shop at the market.
"Now my factory alone employs 30-40 workers, while the total workers could be as many as 1,700," he said while describing the changed business landscape over the years in terms of labour.
Motori has Dharmapur on the west side of the station road and Bagichagaon on the east. On both spots, the factories produce parts to substitute imports, do reverse engineering and make industrial linkage items to meet the local demand.
The industrial hub offers a wide range of industrial products from milling to lathe machine to drill to welding and to hydraulic press. It supplies mixers and boring and piling parts across the country. Besides, agri machinery parts for tractor, thresher, power tiller and press machine are also available there.
Jewel Rana, a light engineering entrepreneur, said he started the business 15 years ago. He usually collects some of the raw materials from the local market, and also relies on imports from China and Japan.
Auto workshops in Cumilla are his main customers as his monthly sales hover around Tk6-7 lakh.
Sirajul Islam, president of factory owners' association, said they do not get substantial investment as a constant fear of eviction from government lands haunt them.
He also noted a lack of capital, a lack of product quality testing, underdeveloped technology, a lack of advanced machines and lack of research as business barriers, seeking policy support from the government.
The market, like other sectors, took a beating during the Covid pandemic. According to the factory owners' association, 400 workers lost their jobs during the Covid-led closure, while 90% of the businesses endured losses.
Despite a remarkable turnaround, the businessmen are yet to retrieve pre-pandemic-level sales. Meanwhile, pricier raw materials and a roiled supply chain cloud the recovery.
Kamal Kasem Baiya, owner of JK Machineries at the market, said his monthly sales are now Tk5-7 lakhs, down from Tk10 lakh in pre-pandemic times.
"I have already lost Tk30 lakh during the pandemic and I am facing a Tk50 lakh bank loan now," added the entrepreneur.
Mofizur Rahman, managing director of the SME Foundation, told The Business Standard that they attach great importance to the development of the local linkage industries that developed spontaneously.
"We will ask the banks so that the entrepreneurs get collateral-free cheap loans," he added.