Two months into the second wave of Covid-19 in the country, shutki (dried fish) traders and producers of Rangpur division are yet to recover from the losses they incurred during the first wave of the pandemic.
Since March last year, many of them have lost their investments, others have left the business altogether, and those who are still powering through are only doing so out of sheer will, with little to show for their efforts.
Rangpur is home to three large wholesale markets for dried fish. They are at Saidpur Bus terminal area of Nilphamari, Teesta Bazar in Lalmonirhat Sadar, and Ghagatparais in Rangpur city.
Shutki traders from these markets have reportedly suffered losses worth around Tk 4 crore since the virus first hit last year.
During a recent visit to Ghagatpara dried fish wholesale market in Rangpur’s RK road, this correspondent found the once-busy market relatively quiet, with most of the shops shut and only a few buyers roaming around.
Seasonal sales of the market used to stand around Tk 6 crore every year. But reaching that target remains a far cry in these trying times, said traders.
They said dried fish season begins every December and runs till August. This is when both production and business peak. But at the tail end of this year’s season, the traders can only count their losses and hope the next one goes well.
Besides local demand, these nine months used to see a lot of demand from abroad.
However, ever since the pandemic started, export has completely dried up, traders said.
In Naogaon’s Atrai upazila — one of the largest sources of dried fish in the northern region, thanks to the Atrai river — a large part of the population earns their living in the dried fish trade. But what used to be a good life has lucked out since the pandemic.
Mirat village’s Rahim Uddin said dried fish cannot be stocked for more than six months. “You just wouldn’t get that fresh taste anymore,” he said. But without buyers, the six months rolled on before the traders can do anything about it.
Mominul Islam, of Bhar-Tetulia under Atrai upazila, said though the anglers of the upazila caught a massive volume of fish from the river, the lack of buyers meant they had to be sold at a peanut’s price.
“Business has turned horrific over these months,” said Mominul, a dried fish trader himself. “On one hand, we don’t have enough buyers. On the other, big traders are cutting down price.”
“The labour that goes in is the same, but the price it fetches has almost halved,” lamented Mominul. Whereas each kg of smaller dried fish used to sell for Tk 300, the price has come down to Tk 150 to 200, he told this correspondent.
“It has become extremely difficult to even meet our day to day costs,” said Sopan Kumar Das, a wholesale trader at Teestabazar in Lalmonirhat Sadar Upazila. According to him, the market has 20 traders like him, who together employ around 100 staff.
“At this rate of sales, it’s becoming impossible for us to pay our staffers’ daily wages,” he said.
The dried fish traders have urged the government to provide them with cash support, saying otherwise, the sector will not survive the pandemic.