A couple of decades ago, incomes of the people of Ishwardi upazila of Pabna and adjoining areas were mostly dependent onNorth Bengal Paper Mill and Alhaj Textile Mills.
Now they are availing new job opportunities brought by Ishwardi Export Processing Zone.
Over 12,000 workers, mostly from Ishwardi and adjacent districts such as Natore and Kushtia, have availed job opportunities in the Ishwardi EPZ although 40 per cent of the EPZ area is yet to be utilised two decades past its inception.
Established in 2001, Ishwardi EPZ at Pakshey has 290 industrial plots. Of them 60 per cent have already been allotted to investors.
Had all the plots been allocated, 25,000 to 30,000 people could have been employed, bringing about a revolutionary change in the socio-economic field in this region, according to Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (Bepza).
A total of 19 export-oriented factories are running in full swing in Ishwardi EPZ. Of the factories running, nine are foreign, eight local and two joint ventures.
Most of the foreign investments have come from South Korea, India, China, Japan, Hong Kong and Marshall Islands.
They are producing electronics and electrical goods, footwear and leather goods, wigs, tents, batteries, denim products, industrial gloves, garments and accessories, yarn, plastic goods, jute products, chemicals and fertilisers.
There are another 12 factories under construction which would start operations very soon.
The new investors from the United Kingdom, China, Australia, and Bangladesh are going to produce knitting and textile products, garments and accessories and cigars and cigarettes with some $16.99 million in investments.
Utility services, secured and safe workplaces, facilities ensuring uninterrupted production and bonded warehousing are the key requirements of the EPZs investors.
Bepza provides it all, said Nazma Binte Alamgir, general manager, public relations of Bepza.
However, Ishwardi EPZ could not draw the same amount of investments as had Cumilla EPZ and Uttara EPZ, all coming about around the same time.
Established in 2000, Cumilla EPZ secured investments of $436.02 million, exports of $ 3,604.49 million and employs 33,846 people.
Uttara EPZ, which was established in 2001 in Rangpur, has so far brought investments of $208.08 million, exports of $1,416 million and employs 27,519 people.
As for Ishwardi EPZ, it attracted investments of $155.75 million and enabled exports of $1,012.02 million.
The prime reason, as per Bepza, is connectivity. The other two have close and better connectivity with roads and river and sea ports, enabling faster access to raw materials alongside exports, said Nazma.
Although there is a domestic airport in Ishwardi, no flight connects to it. Foreigners opt for airlines although there are helicopter pads in the EPZ, she said.
There is a rail station, albeit 10 kilometres away from the Ishwardi EPZ, she added.
The dependence on road communication is costing time and money, so many investors do not prefer Ishwardi EPZ, Nazma said.
Since the locality and surrounding areas are famed for fruit cultivation, Bepza is trying to get food processors to set up facilities, she said.
However, those inside the EPZ will not get the same incentives as those outside, which puts off many investors, she said.
Addressing these issues could ensure utilising the full potential of the EPZ, she added.
Even a couple of years ago, Bilkis Begum, a middle-aged woman of Hemayetpur village in Pabna sadar, was dependent on her husband's small income.
Now she earns for the family some Tk 8,000 to Tk 10,000 a month working in a garment factory in Ishwardi EPZ.
"I come to the EPZ every day in the morning and return home in the evening working 8 to 10 hours a day. It has brought ease to my family," she told The Daily Star recently.
Like her thousands of men and women from different areas of Pabna and adjoining districts come to the EPZ for work every day.
"The EPZ has helped many like me stay clear of economic hardship," said Farida Khatun of Veramara in Kushtia.