On an uneventful day, I was walking aimlessly amidst an overbearing Dhaka traffic near the New Market area. Once I reached the Nilkhet Book Market, I started browsing the shops on the footpaths.
I was expecting nothing interesting there, at least not anything different from other footpath shops in Dhaka. That was until I stumbled into the weirdest shop I have ever seen.
The first thing that caught my attention was a jar of Nescafé coffee. Right beside it was the Bangladesh cricket team's red and green jersey. And right beside that, a toolbox shaped like a small football.
What kind of footpath shop sells jerseys and coffees together?
I have walked on the Nilkhet footpath often, sometimes alone and sometimes with others. But this was the first time I noticed these shops.
There were more than 20 similar shops on the footpath that sell tea, biscuits, crockeries, kitchenwares, bedsheets, mats, manicure sets, table lamps, toiletries, skull caps, prayer mats, thermal flasks and many other items.
All these items had one thing in common – they carried the logos and marks of different medicines and pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh, especially Radiant, Healthcare, Popular, Ziska, Unimed & Unihealth, Nipro, etc.
The gift-giving culture between Bangladeshi doctors and pharmaceutical companies is not a secret. According to a 2019 report by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), these companies sometimes pay for doctors' family holiday tours, send them abroad to participate in international seminars or send gifts to convince them to prescribe their medicines.
Every year, pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh spend more than Tk60 billion on marketing per annum, which is one of the primary reasons for the high prices of medicines in Bangladesh. The report also showed that in 2018 alone, these companies spent 29.6% of their turnover on marketing while the drug market was worth Tk205.11 billion that year.
"The gifts that doctors receive from the pharmaceutical companies usually come from the sales of the medicines. So, basically the patients pay for these gifts," said Dr Iqbal Arslan, former president of Swadhinata Chikitshak Parishad (SWACHIP) and former dean of the Faculty of Basic Science and Paraclinical Science at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
"If this culture can be controlled, then the prices of the medicines would reduce significantly and the people of Bangladesh would enjoy the benefit."
The Business Standard tried to communicate with several pharmaceutical companies including Radiant, Healthcare, Incepta, Navana and Pharmaceutical ISC, but the company officials either rejected the calls or refused to comment on the issue.
How do these gifts find their way into these footpath shops?
I was in a shop run by a final-year bachelor student named Mohammad Shahed. He has been running his shop since 2018. It started with visiting Nilkhet with his uncle and discovering a similar shop selling items, ranging from bedsheets to small blenders and universal remotes.
His uncle, Abdur Rahman, was intrigued. He had connections with doctors, so he asked Shahed if he could source these unique gift items, would Shahed be able to run the shop? The dynamic has continued ever since.
I picked up the aforementioned plastic toolbox shaped like a small football. Shahed said it would cost me Tk800. Another customer asked for the price of a small electric charger fan, which would cost Tk1,200, said Shahed. After haggling for a while, they both settled for Tk900. The customer paid the money, Shahed packed the item and handed it over to him.
I asked Shahed if he thought the items were a bit overpriced. He gave an embarrassed and somewhat defensive smile and replied, "Maybe. But we buy these items at a great price since most are unique. You can't find them just anywhere."
But how do these shops source these items from the doctors? Do they buy them in bulk or separately? How do they determine the price since almost all of these bear the 'not for sale' mark? Do the shopkeepers have an association that regulates the price? All these questions started popping into my head.
Unfortunately, Shahed could not answer all my questions since his uncle is the one who sources the items. I thanked him and set out to explore other shops.
In the next shop, there was a beautiful manicure set on display, among other items. The shopkeeper was a friendly old person named Hawladar. He was already listening to my conversation with Shahed so when I stopped in front of his shop and picked up the manicure set, he informed me that different shopkeepers have their own ways of sourcing and pricing their items.
For example, several contacts come to him with interesting gift items that the doctors decide to sell. I asked him if it was possible for me to have a conversation with these contacts.
He said, "For some reason, these people maintain secrecy about their identities. Most of them do not even share their contact numbers. Sometimes when I can't reach them, I go in front of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital gate and collect the items."
"The shops have been here since 1995. There were only two or three shops that sold these gift items. Now there are more than 20 shops and the items that we sell have increased in number and they are more diversified now," he added.
According to him, the most in-demand items are bed sheets and wallets. But they also sell seasonal items all year round. Dates and Rooh Afza sales, for example, increase significantly during Ramadan and umbrellas during the rainy season.
While talking to Hawlader, I saw someone inspecting a small magnifying glass attached to a nail cutter in the next shop. He took a can of air freshener and read the labels using the magnifying glass.
I asked him if he comes to these shops often. His name is Caesar and he works at Panjeree Publications in Shantinagar. He replied, "Yes, regularly. Everything about these shops fascinates me."
According to Caesar, the difference between the items in regular shops and these gift items are that they look a bit unique as the pharmaceutical companies tend to customise them for the doctors.
"Look at this for example, it is not everyday that you find a magnifying glass attached to a nail cutter," he said.
We asked the shopkeeper about the price of the magnifying glass. After hearing it was Tk350, Caesar put it back. I asked him if he thought these items were overpriced.
"Definitely overpriced. If I can find a better deal for something similar at the regular market, I don't buy it from here. But when the item I like is unique, and I know I can't find an alternative, I buy it even if it's overpriced," he replied.
At that moment, he needed a magnifying glass. There are many magnifying glasses available in the market but they are not very interesting. He said, "I like this particular magnifying glass. But it won't really serve my purpose. If it did, I would've bought it even if it was overpriced."
The stroll I began aimlessly ended with discovering perhaps the most unique footpath shops in Dhaka. I came home with my head full of information and the magnifying glass with a nail cutter in my hand.