Even villagers in far districts and low-income people are now wearing shoes thanks to affordable and locally made shoes, coupled with growing health awareness among the masses.

But walking barefoot is not a distant memory in rural Bangladesh. Even until the late 80s, children went to school barefoot and the wearing of shoes was reserved for special occasions for adults in most cases.

The situation has changed, someone without shoes can hardly be seen on isolated rural roads today. People can now afford shoes, not leather shoes that are fashionable all the time, but at least a pair of rubber or plastic sandals or slippers.

Local unbranded cobblers have done this over the past few decades, making shoes accessible to everyone. Rural people are now enjoying the health benefits of footwear, better protection against hookworms and reduced foot injuries from thorns and broken glasses – which were once quite common in villages.

Wearing shoes helped end the hookworm epidemic in rural American states, including Mississippi in the early 1900s and in Bangladesh it happened about a century later. Doctors say hookworm infection with anemia is no longer a public health problem in rural Bangladesh, which has reduced levels of absenteeism among primary school children, teachers point out.

“When we were children, we went to school barefoot. But for 10-15 years, all children come to school with shoes. They are safe from various diseases because they no longer need going to the toilet barefoot,” Nurunnahar, a primary school teacher in Jamalpur, told The Business Standard.

Syed Abdul Hamid, a professor at the Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka, said the shoes have transformed the rural way of life into a healthy one.

“In the past, students suffered from various health problems such as stomachache, vomiting and fever, mainly due to worm attack or parasitic infection. Shoes have changed the health situation.”

The health economics professor said that although there is no concrete research data, it is evident that a better and hygienic lifestyle has helped the working class protect themselves against infectious diseases .

Dr Md Nazmul Islam, Director (Disease Control) of the Directorate General of Health Services, said: “The spread of worm-related diseases in the country has decreased by 90% due to wearing shoes and taking drugs, especially in children. the health of children in the country has improved.”

KM Enamul Haque, deputy director of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), has worked with students for more than 30 years.

He said: “The rate of shoe-wearing among schoolchildren has increased since 2003. Even children in the hills or tank areas wear slippers. This improved their mental and physical well-being. Their school attendance rate has also increased significantly due to their good health.”

Last year, the government announced to provide Tk 1,000 to every primary school student for shoes, shirts and pants (school uniforms) so they can develop a healthier, cleaner and fairer mindset , he added.

A great achievement

With around 22,000 factories and 12 lakh people involved, the local unbranded footwear industry has grown spontaneously over the past few decades.

The booming industry has ensured a pair of shoes or at least slippers at a reasonable price for people living in rural areas, especially for children contributing to the health benefits.

Harun-ur-Rashid, president of the Bangladesh Rexine and Shoe Material Merchants Association, said the lifestyle transformation is a big achievement for the local footwear industry.

He said, “Nowadays people in rural areas can even buy a pair of unbranded canvas shoes for Tk 500-600, which was unthinkable even 10-15 years ago.”

Industry insiders hope that the footwear industry, which currently accounts for about 30% of the Tk 17,000 crore footwear market in the country, will be able to produce quality products in the future and earn revenue. currencies through export.

Self-taught entrepreneurs

Mohammad Akash Ahmed was a shoe factory worker at Mirpur in Dhaka in 1998. In 2004 he started a factory with Tk1 lakh which he saved from his salary. Akash initially had only three employees.

But now 25 people work in his factory while his annual turnover hovers around Tk3 crore.

“I produce about 2.50 lakh pairs of shoes per year which are sold in Dhaka and district towns,” he said.

According to 2016 data from SME Foundation, about 5,000-6,000 shoe factories were located in Old Dhaka, 200 in Mirpur and Pallabi areas of Dhaka, more than 10,000 in Bhairab of Kishoreganj, 600-700 in Madarbari of Chattogram, 300 in Brahmanbaria and 100 in Rajshahi.

There were also shoe factories in Cumilla, Gazipur, Narsingdi and Narayanganj.

Manzur Rahman from Kaluhati village of Rajshahi in Charghat union started a small shoe unit in his family workshop in 2014 with a savings of Tk 20,000 and a loan of Tk 50,000. Before that, he worked in a shoe factory.

Manzur now owns about 1.5 crore Tk in six years. He has already bought five bighas of land from Rajshahi.

Manzur, who is now the chairman of Kaluhati Paduka Samiti, told The Business Standard that his factory now employs 70 people despite starting with just three workers.

From Biharis to Bangalis

During the British period, there were no large-scale shoe factories in East Bengal. Various types of shoes were imported, mainly from Calcutta.

In 1952, immigrant Chinese nationals started making shoes and sandals in the Mitford area of ​​Old Dhaka. Later, Bihari refugees from India learned shoemaking skills from them.

Many Biharis worked in shoe factories in different parts of India in the 1960s. They moved to Bangladesh and set up shoe factories in Old Dhaka.

After the independence of the country, when the Biharis left, Bangali workers took over these factories and kept the production running.

Many workers have also set up factories in Bangshal, Siddique Bazar, Alu Bazar, Malitola Lane, Suritola Lane, Lutfar Rahman Lane, Abdul Halim Lane, Osmangani Lane, Tikatuli, Aga Sadek Road and other areas of Old Dhaka.

Later, these factories spread throughout the country. However, the greatest expansion of this industry took place in the 1980s.

In 1962, Bata Shoes, a global footwear brand, set up its manufacturing facility in Tongi.

Jalal Uddin, owner of a shoe factory in Lalmai upazila in Cumilla, said: “In the past, shoes could only be bought in the big markets in the upazila town. But now the village markets have three to four shoe shops.

Harun-ur-Rashid, president of the Bangladesh Rexine and Shoe Material Merchants Association, said Eid sales are the lifeblood of unbranded footwear.

According to factory owners, the industry uses raw hides collected locally, while other raw materials such as artificial leather, rubber, glue and different chemicals are mainly imported from China.

Shoemakers need government support

Mohammad Bappi Sarkar, general secretary of the Dhaka Small Footwear Industry Owners Association, said factory-made shoes imported from China and India under low tariffs were hurting the local industry.

“We need political support, easy and low cost bank loans, training and modern equipment to survive and be competitive. Also, there should be more import duties on imports shoes to protect local manufacturers,” he said.

Bappi said the number of factories in the country would increase to 30,000-35,000 over the next 10-12 years if the government provided support. The thriving sector could also earn foreign currency through exporting.

Mofizur Rahman, Managing Director of SME Foundation, said: “It is true that these shoe factories have grown organically. But now we try our best to provide technical training, financial and technical support.

Mofizur said the foundation has already provided Bhairab shoe factories with technological support.

He said the foundation will expand its efforts across the country.