The port city is still fighting for the importance it deserves, and is yet to become a real “commercial capital,” said Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) President, Mahbubul Alam, in talking to the Dhaka Tribune’s Shariful Islam in an exclusive interview, noted that concrete and timely steps are needed to turn the city into a commercial hub
Do you think Chittagong is the commercial capital of Bangladesh as it has often been called?
Port cities are given special importance for the economic development of countries. These cities are developed as commercial capitals or hubs [of their respective countries]. For example, Mumbai in India and New York in the USA are getting priority for having seaports. So, Chittagong has huge potential for becoming the commercial capital of Bangladesh.
Having one of the hundred top-listed seaports in the world, its geographical location, and potential to construct a deep sea port, is enough to force political leaders and policymakers to [take initiatives to] turn Chittagong into our commercial capital. Moreover, there is a huge potential of river connectivity, tourism, the blue economy, and opportunity to produce sufficient power and energy.
Regrettably, in the 47 years since independence, Chittagong is yet to be transformed into a commercial hub in a true sense and the city has been fighting for the importance it deserves.
What are the barriers to the transformation of Chittagong into a commercial capital?
Although there is a huge geographical advantage, Chittagong continues to be neglected by government policymakers. [The political parties continue to] use it (Chittagong) for political gains. Chittagong is the gateway of the country’s export-import and it deserves special priority, but the situation is very bad here.
In 2009, an abrupt decision, which was recently withdrawn, was taken by the concerned authorities that no new industrial gas connections would be provided here. Following the move, in the past eight years, most of the industries from Chittagong have shifted to Dhaka and other districts as they could not survive competing against others. A gas crunch is the reason behind the decline in the number of garment factories in Chittagong, going from 600 in 2009 to only 250.
Now, everything is more centralized in Dhaka. The decisions [regarding business and other issues] are taken at headquarters located there. A businessman has to go to Dhaka to secure most of his logistic support. Then, why should he set up his factory in Chittagong? Moreover, the city was not expanded due to land crisis.
Which issues should be prioritized to turn Chittagong into a commercial hub?
Concrete and timely steps are needed for the development of Chittagong. Infrastructural development and increasing the city’s connectivity with other parts of the country, especially the capital, are needed. After 2009, many mega projects have been taken up for the development of Chittagong port, but more needs to be done to improve the airport, develop the port’s infrastructure, solve the gas-electricity-water stagnation crisis, and to develop road and waterways connectivity.
The mega projects – including the Karnaphuli tunnel, bay terminal, twin city project marine drive road, LNG terminal, deep seaport, coal-fired power plants, and the specialized economic zone of Mirsarai – should be completed on time.
Moreover, the government should take realistic steps to relocate the ministries, banks, and head offices of commercially important offices to Chittagong. In this regard, we have been repeatedly requesting the government to establish the headquarters of at least two to three banks and insurance companies in Chittagong so that the business community here does not have to waste time and money to get decisions and approvals [by travelling to Dhaka].
What about Chittagong port facilities?
Over the years, Chittagong port’s operations have expanded, but the infrastructure expansion was stuck in paperwork. The port has been facing challenges from increased operational growth as the port’s infrastructure has not seen any remarkable development in the last 10 years.
The ports’ efficiency mainly depends on the development of three infrastructural facilities – jetties, equipment, and yards. In the last 10 years, the port authorities have prepared projects to build four terminals, but none of them saw the light of day. Due to a lack of jetties, a number of vessels have to wait in outer anchorage, leading to extra costs.
How much loss do businesses incur?
Vessel congestion has been acute for the last eight months and this has led to huge losses for businesses. We have to pay $10,000 to $24,000 (depending on the size of the vessel) in demurrages every single day a vessel has to wait. Last year, importers had to incur Tk1,200 crore in losses, which increased the price of imported goods by Tk1 per kg on average.
What measures should be taken to expand port facilities?
Bangladesh’s imports have been growing as the country’s economy has been expanding rapidly. More and more lighterage vessels are needed to handle the offloading and transfer of imported goods through Chittagong port. The government should allow at least 500 more lighters to mitigate the shortage of such vessels. Additionally, more jetties have to be built to speed up the unloading of goods from lighters.
The infrastructure development of the port should be taken up and completed according to the master plan, and more equipment needs to be purchased. Finally, the port authorities have to be more efficient and they have to use the best of resources.
To resolve the ongoing problem, the construction of the bay terminal should be completed within the shortest time. There is a permanent channel at the proposed bay terminal and there is a draught of more than nine metres, where mother vessels (vessels carrying 50,000 tons of goods) could easily berth at the jetties. All types of transportation facilities would be available at the terminal.