Around 250 of the mills at Baneshwar Bazar, Rajshahi closed in the face of competition from importers
Armed with 300 lentil processing mills, Baneshwar Bazar in Rajshahi once met around 60 percent of the total lentil demand of Bangladesh.
However, in the last five years, around 250 of the mills of the "lentil capital" closed in the face of competition from big companies that import lentil from abroad.
Mill owners said the big companies have been importing large grain lentils from countries including Australia and Canada, and selling them at half the price of local lentil.
This pushed down the price of local lentil, which remain unsold in warehouses as mill owners are not getting fair prices. Furthermore, mill owners are now in heavy debt as they have been unable to pay back their loans.
Lentil processing in Bangladesh started its journey during the 1980s. According to traders of Baneshwar Bazar said that the lentil business reached its peak at the beginning of the millennium.
But since 2013, conglomerates including Meghna Group of Industries, City Group and ACI Limited started importing large grain lentil, leading to the eventual decline of the lentil capital.
Traders said the mills have been shutting down one after another from 2015. Those that are still in operation are being subsidised.
Jalal Uddin, owner of the now closed Rupali Daal Mill, said he processed and marketed various types of lentil for 25 years. After incurring heavy losses, his mill shut down three years ago.
Now Jalal owes Tk2.2 crore to banks. He is now making ends meet from a small drug store in Baneshwar Bazar.
Altaf Hossain, owner of another closed mill, had been in the lentil business since 2007. Like Jalal, he too has been stuck with Tk50 lakh debt for the past three years.
Mohammad Ali Sarker, manager of a mill named Rojob and Brothers, said the price of Bangladeshi lentil per maund is Tk2,200. On the other hand, foreign large grain lentils are being sold at Tk1,400 per maund.
Nasir Uddin, proprietor of M/S Mama-Bhagne lentil mill, said big companies are buying lentil through letters of credit from abroad and selling the product at low prices.
He said hundreds of maunds of lentil remain stored in their warehouses.
When contacted, Baneshwar Ancholic Daal Byabsayi Association (Baneshwar Local Lentil Traders' Association), Obaidur Rahman, said, the big companies are selling lentil at low prices as part of syndicate.
"I lost Tk20 crore in the last five years. My mill is operating with subsidies."
He further said, 17,500 maund of lentils remain unsold in his warehouse, urging the government to compensate mill owners.
Obaidur said the authorities should take steps to prevent big corporations from forming sydicates and dictating the price.
"At the same time, import of lentils from abroad must be stopped. If these measures are taken, then the Bangladeshi farmers and lentil traders can recover from the losses," he added.