Chittagong plays a significant role in regional connectivity across the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, thanks to its strategic geographic location
Although Chittagong is often dubbed the commercial capital of Bangladesh, the city has been more or less neglected by the government since independence, say economists, experts, businesses, and other stakeholders.
They say the title “Commercial Capital” is only a slogan used as a political tool, while the government’s action and policies to transform the city are conspicuously absent.
Chittagong plays a significant role in regional connectivity across the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, thanks to its strategic geographic location.
It has the potential to become a global financial centre and regional transhipment hub for northeast India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, and southeast China.
The British, and even the Pakistanis , prioritized Chittagong considering its location and potentiality.
“Globally, port cities are given special importance for the economic development of countries, and these cities are developed as commercial capitals or hubs,” Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) President Mahbubul Alam told the Dhaka Tribune.
“For example, Mumbai and New York, are given priority just for having seaports,” he pointed out, adding, “Chittagong has huge potential for being the commercial capital of Bangladesh.”
Alam said Chittagong’s natural advantages – such as having one of the one hundred top-listed seaports in the world and its geographical location, and the potential for a deep-sea port – are enough reasons to make political leaders and policymakers take initiatives to turn the city into a commercial capital.
“Moreover, there is huge potential for river connectivity, tourism, blue economy, and opportunity to produce sufficient power and energy,” he added.
According to businesses, around 98% of container export and import is conducted through Chittagong port.
The Chittagong EPZ, one of Bangladesh’s biggest export processing zones, Sitakundu, Kalurghat, and Mohra heavy industrial zones, two huge depots of fuel oil, two gas fields, 22 tea gardens, and a prime tea auction centre are located beside the seaport.
Despite all the potential, Chittagong continues to be neglected by government policymakers and the city has a long way to go before it can become the country’s commercial hub.
“Political parties only use the city’s name to rise to power and once in office, they forget all the promises they made,” said Commercial Capital Implementation Parishad (CCIP) President, Principal Dr Abdul Karim.
University Grants Commission (UGC) Professor of Economics, Dr Muinul Islam, told the Dhaka Tribune there had been negligence in proper implementation of policies and ideas to give Chittagong the status of a commercial capital.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal without infrastructure development,” he said.
East Delta University Vice-chancellor, Prof Muhammad Sikander Khan, noted that a city needs three types of support – natural, administrative, and financial – to be a commercial hub.
“Chittagong has all the natural elements, but there is a huge absence of administrative and financial support,” he said. “Neglecting Chittagong means a loss for the economy as it is the economic nerve-centre of the country.”
Sources say businesses need about 55 services to export and import, but half of these services are unavailable in Chittagong. This has led businesses to move to Dhaka, although the port is in Chittagong.
Neither the Shipping Ministry nor the Commerce Ministry has a branch or desk in Chittagong. Also, no head offices of banks or insurance companies are located there.
Many locally and internationally renowned brands such as Unilever Bangladesh, Berger Paints, The Standard Chartered Bank, and RTV, started their journeys in Chittagong. The first readymade garment factory, too, was set up there.
But all of them have been forced to shift their businesses to Dhaka as business-related activities are centralized in the capital.
Chittagong as the commercial capital
The BNP is believed to be the first political party to use “Commercial Capital” as a term for Chittagong during the 1991 elections, when it promised to develop the city.
BNP Standing Committee member and former commerce minister, Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, said they had “done so many things” such as allocating land for the development of Chittagong airport, establishing a new Mooring Container Terminal at the seaport, building port connecting roads, and establishing the economic zone.
“But now everything has been centralized to Dhaka,” the former commerce minister said.
However, Didarul Alam, the Awami League MP from Chittagong 4, said there were eight ministers and state ministers from the district during the BNP’s tenure, and still the city saw no development.
“Since out party came to power in 2009, there has been much development work in Chittagong – many projects are on going and more and more are in the pipeline.”
He said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina always pays special attention to the port city and she has promised to turn Chittagong into the commercial capital of Bangladesh.
CCCI President Mahbubul Alam said: “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 gas-electricity-water stagnation crisis, and develop road and waterways connectivity.”
The mega projects – including 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, he said.
“The government should take realistic steps to relocate the ministries, banks, and head offices of commercially important offices to Chittagong,” the CCCI president added.