Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Downsizing can never the Only Answer

Jute has to be made free of corruption and mismanagement

Once the barometer of our national economy, Bangladeshi jute products have been facing a difficult time in the international market. In a part of her ministry’s Jute Reform Programme, Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, adviser to the Jute and Textiles Ministry, has declared this month her government’s intention to shut down four state owned jute mills and to get rid of 14,000 workers from 22 mills. While it is true that the state-owned jute mills’ cumulative loss stands at a staggering Tk 5000 crore a year, downsizing is not the answer. The reasons for this loss, which the ordinary citizens bear year in and year out, have been manifold in nature. Trade unionism, mismanagement, coupled with the lack of sincerity and the absence of a proper jute policy are a few of the blows our jute sector has taken in the last one and a half decades. The once-golden fibre of Bangladesh has quickly turned into a noose on the farmers’ neck. In the early and mid nineties, under the so-called structural readjustment policy some of our jute mills have been shut down while products made of jute have witnessed a remarkable growth in the international market thanks to a worldwide environmentalist movement. India and China, our two next-door neighbours, now control a good share of the market when we were busy laying off our mills, not to mention the trade-unionism that does nothing for the benefit of the labourers. Instead of giving the workers a voice, trade unions have become mere bullyboys à la Hitler’s Brown Shirt. Most trade unions are far from being the vanguards of the proletariat; most of their leaders, in connivance with some unscrupulous managers have made the state-own mills a profitable business for themselves, illegal selling of bales of jute procured for the mills, over employment, corruption in procurement are a few salient features of our forlorn jute sector.
Severing one’s head if one is having a headache is not the answer; a massive investment is needed in the jute sector. No one (not even our high-flying, shining neighbours) will deny that we produce the best jute in the world. Bureaucratic tangles between the jute and finance ministries, and the BJMC have to be removed. A body, comprising of experts and labour leaders, should immediately be formed to revive the old glory of our jute. Closing down jute mills is not the answer, the government must think twice before taking any step that will hurt hundreds of lives. The adviser has informed us that after the so-called ‘golden handshake’ these 14, 000 labourers will be employed on a daily basis, which is not going to be cost-effective, and there is every danger of losing skilled workers, not to mention the social cost of such a venture. We must not forget that faced with a resurgent environmentalist movement across the globe, the demands for artificial synthetic products have witnessed a slump in the international market. It is high time that we take effective concentrated efforts to save our jute sector. Good planning is needed, so are sincerity and goodwill. A task force can be formed to probe into cases of corruption in the jute mills; the arrest of Osman Gani, the Chief Conservator of Forest, has opened a can of worms in our administration, we believe, more of the likes of Gani are at large, and some are still running the show in different government-run mills and factories. Otherwise nothing can justify the fact that subsequent governments have claimed to run the country smoothly but have always found managing mills and factories difficult. The financing and procurement process has to be freed from the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued this sector for so long. Meanwhile, we must nurture our skilled labour, make ways to developed new ones. The beginning of a new industrialised forward looking Bangladesh can start from the jute sector.