The printing presses are facing a crisis of raw materials scarcity and price hikes
Free textbook distribution to primary and secondary level students for the new academic year 2021 may face drawbacks as papers' price soars and some printers are struggling to manage the papers needed for the books.
According to the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB), nearly 350 million textbooks will be distributed -- 102,582,555 books at primary education level and 241,079,000 at the secondary level.
A total of 154 printing presses have got work orders from NCTB for printing the books.
Printing presses fear that they may not be able to deliver 30% of the books within the deadline if the local paper mills do not supply the required papers and reduce the price.
In that case, the government will have to allow them to import duty-free paper this time.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic many paper mills have halted operation or cut down production as raw materials’ prices soar in the international market and sales have dropped. The ones still in operation have increased bulk paper’s price.
In a rare scenario, printing presses are now in a race to manage papers from the mills.
They alleged that taking advantage of the current situation, some millers have compelled them to buy substandard papers at a higher price.
“We are going to incur a loss as the price is higher and books may cost more than the estimated cost mentioned in the agreements with the NCTB,” Mohammad Zahurul Islam, general secretary of Printing Industries Association of Bangladesh told Dhaka Tribune.
They have approached the National Board of Revenue (NBR) and NCTB for duty-free import but no decision has been given yet, he said.
The NCTB, on the other hand, is hopeful about getting maximum books delivered within December and the rest by January 5-7, and distributing those among the students as early as possible.
Till November 8, they received 70% of the primary level books and 50% of the secondary level ones. The rest are however still at the production level.
They have warned of taking actions if any printer fails to deliver the books within December this year.
What is the process of book production?
Professor Narayan Chandra Saha, chairman of NCTB, said they follow two processes for smooth production.
“We have bought 13,000 metric tons of papers including art cards for book covers from paper mills directly through tender to prepare 50 million books and already sent it to the printers for printing,” he said.
Large paper mills like Meghna Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd, Creative Paper Mills Ltd, and Bashundhara Paper Mills supplied the papers.
For the rest of the books, NCTB arranged separate tenders for printers and printing presses took part in the bidding.
NCTB conducted quality tests of the paper samples and qualified printers were asked to start production once NCTB supplied the contents for books.
The printers were supposed to buy papers from the mills in bulk and deliver complete books to the NCTB.
Printers blame mills, syndication
Printers require more than 80,000 metric tons of papers but still they have a shortage of 20,000 metric tons.
Mohammad Zahurul Islam, general secretary of Printing Industries Association, said the crisis will not be solved anytime soon.
“We paid advance money to the mills, when the price was Tk50,000 per ton on average but now it is Tk58,000-60,000. The quality also fell,” he alleged.
He said: “In the previous years, there was no pandemic situation, no paper crisis. Bulk price of paper used to decrease during the textbook printing season.
“Of the total 40 paper mills in the country, 10 mills used to produce textbook-standard papers. This year only six-seven mills are producing such paper.
“Now they have increased the price by syndication as other mills are not in production,” he added.
However, to keep their reputation intact and avoid legal troubles, the majority of printing presses are producing books despite losses or marginal profit.
“I think some of us will never be able to overcome this loss in the future,” Zahurul said.
When they requested NBR to give permission for duty-free import, the millers’ association opposed it. The association sent an objection letter to NBR and NCTB saying that duty-free import would hurt the local paper industry.
The NBR will hold a meeting after December 14 with three parties — NCTB, Printing Industries Association, and Bangladesh Paper Mills Association to find a solution.
Zahurul claimed that if big mills wanted they could supply the papers at a reasonable price, but they worked as syndicates.
The printers also alleged that the NCTB this year could not provide dummies and manuscripts in due time which also created havoc for them.
“Dummies of 11 books arrived 20 days late and four books 30 days late,” he said.
Paper mills blame price hike in global market
Al Noor Paper And Board Mills Ltd is one of the mills that supply papers to the printers.
Md Farid Uddin, an executive of the mill, told Dhaka Tribune that the price of raw materials such as pulp soared.
“Before the pandemic we bought a ton of pulp for Tk40,000 and now it costs Tk48,000.
“The printers had no work till December and so we did not have any work either. Both the parties had a capital crunch, the struggle is not theirs only,” he added.
Owner of a paper mill that has halted operation said sales dropped nearly 90% as both the publication and newspaper industry are struggling.
The demand for exercise books is also low as schools and colleges are closed due to the pandemic. Besides, there are no public examinations, where huge amounts of papers are required every year.
“So, we halted production and like many others sent workers on leave to cut costs,” he said.
NCTB hopeful about timely production
Professor Narayan Chandra Saha said they will be able to send 100 million books of the secondary level by December and rest by January 5-7 next year.
The NCTB chief claimed that the printers are actually worried about price hike not supply.
“The current market price is not our concern. They have to buy the papers on their own,” he said.
“We have asked mill owners to keep the production on. Most of the printers are already working,” he said.
“Some printers are raising the issue as they know that they will be defaulters finally. They are just making a ground of excuses prior to the failure,” he added.
Asked what the punishments will be if they fail, he said that the defaulters will be blacklisted, fined, and also face other legal actions.