How are the Shimulia ghat businesses faring after Padma bridge?
Restaurant owners and others are experiencing a change in their business climate due to the Padma bridge. We recently visited the ghat to find out how
It was lunch hour when we reached Shimulia ghat in Mawa. Not long ago, this ghat used to be a bustling place crowded with passengers and tourists. The restaurants here are famous for their fried Ilish items that attract tourists from Dhaka.
We found it desolate — a few buses docked in the vast empty terminal where only a handful of people could be spotted. But it should also be kept in mind that the traditional Dhaka-centric tourists still crowd at Mawa at night.
It was an unusual silence, even for daytime, all around the ghat except for the restauranteurs' side where employees were chitchatting, giggling, and having fun fights among themselves as there were no customers to attend to.
Other small stores and tea-cigarette sellers were equally idle – no customers, no rush.
Having conversations with these idle small businesses and restauranteurs, we came across the stories of uncertainties, losses, and layoffs after Padma Bridge was inaugurated – which continues to unleash the unexplored potentials of southern Bangladesh.
While the bridge in operation is changing the lives of millions in the south for the better, passenger rush to Shimulia ghat died down. However, we also came across a timid hope, when some restauranteurs told us that the government plans to take some projects targeting the ghat that might save their businesses in future.
"We cannot even sell one-third of what we sold before Padma Bridge," said Deen Mohammad of Niribili Hotel and Restaurants, one of the most-running eateries at the ghat.
They didn't yet get their first customer of the day when we spoke with Deen.
"We could make a sale of around Tk20,000 on normal days before, while on Fridays and Saturdays, the sale would reach as high as Tk80,000 or more. Now on normal days, we barely sell Tk5,000 on weekdays and our weekend sales dropped to around Tk25,000," Deen Mohammad said.
Swapno Hotel and Restaurant's Idris said, "The previous rent for the restaurant was Tk45,000 and still, Mahajan would make huge profits after paying our salaries. But now the store rent has come down to Tk20,000 and yet, he had to drop our daily wages to Tk300 from Tk500."
The restaurant workers mentioned massive scale layoffs in the last six months. In every restaurant we visited, be it large or small, staff lay-offs are common.
"We don't even have one-third of our previous business. It is past lunch hour and we couldn't sell a single fish yet. We only have four staff at present whereas we were 18 before," said Abul Hossain of Molla Hotel and Restaurant, adding, "Six out of 12 restaurants at our speedboat ghat line have been shut down."
The nearby Maisha Hotel and Restaurant is also running on one-fourth of their employees – from 25 in the past to only six employees at present.
Departmental stores and tea-cigarette sellers are also carrying the brunt of business losses.
"Padma Bridge has left us stranded," said tea stall Apon Store's Gobinda. "My sale doesn't reach even a [tk] thousand whereas, before the bridge, I would sell [tk] 8-10 thousand a day. Now I open the store only three to four days a week. Other days I remain at my house, worrying over my family's future."
The situation is worse for cigarette and betel leaf seller Malek Akon, an elderly man, who sits in the open with a table and chair. "I used to sell more than Tk3,000 a day. After the bridge, I cannot even sell Tk200 per day," Malek said.
Ibrahim Khalilullah's, the public toilet in-charge, grievances also illustrate the dilapidated business climate at the ghat. "Previously, we would charge everyone Tk5 and still make Tk2,000-Tk3,000 a day. At the moment we charge Tk10 per person and still cannot make a thousand," Ibrahim said.
Additionally, the lives of Diana, Suruj Mia or Lal Mia, beggars at the ghat, too have been impacted. They have lost the lion's share of their earnings – from Tk600-700 a day in the past, they now earn only Tk200-Tk300 a day.
The roadside eateries, for example, Ilish Bhoj, Shokher Hari, Bashumati and Nirala restaurants, however, were faring a bit better in comparison to the other eateries at the ghat as Ilish-eater tourists from Dhaka at night visit them more. However, they still reported substantial losses in the last six months.
"Before the bridge's inauguration, we could sell Tk1 lakh to Tk1.5 lakh on Thursday and Friday nights. But now sales have come down to Tk60,000 on average on those days," said Bitoo, manager of Ilish Bhoj restaurant.
The business is woeful on weekdays, like all other restaurants here, Bitoo said. "In the past, we had 60 staff in different shifts. At present, we have only 15 staff in total," Mahfuz, one of the employees at Ilish Bhoj restaurant.
"We are here [in this state] because Mawa ghat is no longer a tourist attraction. People now mostly come and see the bridge, some even cross the bridge," said Shokher Hari restaurant's manager Mamun.
Mamun, however, is optimistic that their business would rise once again when some government projects like eco-park, container terminals etc are opened here. Mamun has heard of the undertaking of these projects.
Masud Shikder, proprietor of Nirala restaurant and secretary of the local restauranteurs' association said, "The business has become dull after the Padma bridge. Some restaurants were shut, and others suffered, but some of us whose businesses were dependent on tourists survived."
He expressed his optimism about survival because the government is mulling over building an eco-park here. "If this project is implemented, our business will survive," he said.
On a brighter note, however, the much-hyped Project Hilsa restaurant near Shimulia Ghat, said their businesses were unimpacted. "We are receiving groups from districts like Barishal, Faridpur etc who come and eat here together," said Dilip, a supervisor at Project Hilsha.
We reached out to Mamunur Rashid, the port officer of BIWTA at Shimulia ghat who, however, illustrated a bleak situation.
"Before Padma Bridge came into being, there were footfalls of 80,000 to 1,00,000 people to this ghat every day. There were 200-250 speedboats, 100 launches and 15 ferries in operation. Now, there are only a few launches and passenger boats running from here," Mamunur Rashid said, adding, "no one except a few bikers who try to cross on launches come here now."
In response to our question, if the government is mulling over an eco-park here, he said, "The Eco Park project worth Tk450 to Tk550 crore has been shelved by the government amid the country's ongoing economic crisis. But we will go ahead with the Internal Container Terminal plan. After the project is approved, two to three years will be needed to complete it."
If some of these restaurants/stores can survive till that government project is passed, implemented and eventually launched, they could perhaps do a moderate business, the BIWTA officer said.
But people like Kabir Hossain, whose livelihood depends on the ghat, are not optimistic that they have still got a chance here anymore.
"My business has come down to one-fourth. Now I rely mostly on large orders from well-off households. But such orders are also few and far between," said Kabir Hossain, in charge of a fish-selling store named Padmar Macher Dokan, adding, "Whereas I could sell 50 pieces of Ilish per day in the past, now I cannot even sell 50 a week. Padma bridge has demolished the source of living for many people from the region."