Non-RMG export continues to decline
Although all the attention is grabbed by readymade garments (RMG) export, there is still a 15 per cent segment of export that constitutes items/products from other sectors. These include leather and leather-goods, jute and jute goods, agro-products, chemicals pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, frozen and live fish. Now, they may constitute only 15 per cent of the export basket, but still involve millions of people who earn their living from these areas of economic activity. There is no way to ignore those since together they fetch billions of dollars every year.
If one looks at jute and products made from it, the sector has posted a 20.25 per cent negative growth rate over the July 2022 -April 2023 period. Yes, there is a move away from natural fibres to man-made fibres, but is that the only reason? How is it that neighbouring India has invested heavily in jute and made serious efforts at diversifying the jute-based product portfolio. Over two decades ago, India was exporting all manner of jute products as home textile, jute-based geotextiles for securing embankments to Europe. The semi-automatic nature of equipment to produce a lot of these products was introduced by local engineering companies to cater to a fledging domestic industry to make varied products destined for foreign shores. That country's small entrepreneurs were getting policy support from the State to make a wide range of products and this support came in the form of diversification of product portfolio and actively seeking out new export markets.
Simply blaming external factors, like the war in Europe, doesn't quite explain why for over a decade a central effluent plant (CETP) could not be set up at the tannery estate in Savar, the lack of which means Bangladeshi leather and leather products do not get the mandatory seal of approval from foreign countries that these were produced using environmentally-compliant processes. Whose fault is that? How many leather companies can afford to make investment in individual ETPs, and a more important question is, why should they be asked to do so in the first place? Especially when their plants are in a specialised estate?
The country has taken giant steps to make it possible to produce enough food to feed a population of 170 million or so citizens. Today, most people do not suffer from protein-deficiency (barring the ultra-poor). A negative growth of nearly 29 per cent over the stated period should set the alarm bell ringing all over the corridors of power. Instead of providing policy support, the price of diesel has been spiked 50 per cent and that is directly correlated with the cost of production. When farmers are unable to meet their cost of production and are forced to sell at prices lower than the cost of products, naturally agriculture will suffer. Why are steps not being taken to introduce solar-based power pumps in the country? Cutting back on grandiose infrastructure at the time of recession and diverting some of these funds to provide as matching share (from the government side) to secure foreign financial assistance to introduce these pumps would be a step in the right direction.
There are ways to get over the problems that non-RMG sectors are facing. Proper recognition at the policy level of the need to pay immediate attention to these sectors can go a long way to turn them around. At a time when the national exchequer is haemorrhaging due to dollar crunch, every avenue needs to be explored to increase exports - from every sector.