Nurul Islam Printing Press in Dhaka’s Sutrapur has less than two months to print 1.4 million textbooks for primary students, but it has not even started. Many other printing houses are also yet to get down to work amid a spike in the price of paper.
Printing house owners said they want a duty cut on paper imports. Or, the government needs to compromise the quality of textbooks. Many of those negotiating with the government said they may decline the order.
Despite strong assurance from Education Minister Dipu Moni, it is evident that getting all primary textbooks printed by the first day of the new year in keeping with a decade-long tradition will be a challenge, believes Professor Farhadul Islam, chairman of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board or NCTB. But he is hopeful that textbooks for the secondary students will be printed soon.
For the past two years, the government could not provide all textbooks on Jan 1 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and complications over the tenders. Many students waited until after March before they could lay their hands on all the textbooks this year. The NCTB received the last consignment of 30,000 books in April.
That same cycle is going on this year as well. Partial distribution of textbooks may be possible at the beginning of the year, the officials said.
The government plans to distribute 350 million of pre-primary, primary and secondary-level textbooks next year.
As the government is rushing to print textbooks quickly at the end of the year, printing house owners are raising a litany of problems facing them.
They took printing orders at a rate lower than the government one but are now asking for a tax cut on paper import. When the government did not respond to the demand, the owners asked for permission to print low-quality books.
Printers said they were facing many challenges, including getting the work order late, Ukraine war pushing up the paper price and disruption in power supply that prevented them from printing the textbooks in time.
Many of them refused talking about the timeline of printing textbooks.
The price of paper increased by Tk 25,000-Tk 30,000 per tonne from where it stood at the time when the tenders were floated, said Parvez Ahmed, owner of Nurul Islam Printing Press.
“For textbooks of grades one and two, I received the work order on Wednesday evening. Orders for grades three, four and five came a few days ago. None of the printers could start the printing work. How is it possible to incur a loss of Tk 30,000 per tonne, when each printer got an order requiring 200 tonnes of paper?”
But the printing of secondary-level textbooks has progressed since it started on Oct 15, he said. “We have placed some small demands and the NCTB is willing to help. We’re in discussion with the ministry and can start the work as soon as the ministry agrees [to our demands.]”
“Suppose the NCTB chooses some paper brands, which have a high rate. Some companies are there which will provide us the paper at a lower cost with small profit for them. We want to buy paper from such companies. If the ministry approves it, we’ll face less financial loss.”
Sagarika Printing Press in Chattogram received a work order to print 5 million textbooks for primary and secondary levels. When they submitted the bidding, the dollar rate was Tk 90 which now shot up beyond Tk 107, said owner Giasuddin.
“Also, (paper) pulp is not available in Bangladesh now and we can't even import it. We're thinking about discontinuing the printing work as we'll face a huge financial loss." If the government still wants to print the book, they would have to compromise with the quality, he said.
"The paper required to print textbooks cost Tk 130,000 to 135,000 per tonne. We told the NCTB that the paper available in Bangladesh has a brightness lower than what is mentioned in the conditions (of the work order.) But it won't be a problem to use it for printing textbooks for children. We want the NCTB to be a little flexible and then we can finish printing the books on time."
Rabbani Jabbar, owner of Ananda Printers in Arambagh who received an order to print
primary and secondary textbooks, said he would not be able to print primary textbooks as he was yet to receive 20 percent payment for printing primary textbooks last year.
He already wrote to the NCTB declining the order, he said. The authorities picked flaws in the books he printed and complained about it after the six months of warranty period was over, the printer claimed.
“Currently, I am a loan defaulter. That's why I told the NCTB that I can't do the job unless there's bank support. I informed the NCTB on time to assign someone else to print the primary textbooks."
Rabbani, however, hopes to complete printing the secondary textbooks on time if the NCTB remains a little “flexible”. “There's a scarcity of paper and other raw materials. As the local paper mills can't help us, our proposal is that the government should allow tax-free paper import for completing the education boards' printing work. It could be easier to print the textbooks then. We placed our proposal around two months ago."
Shajahan Farazi, owner of Farazi Press and Publications in Dhaka's Matuail, got an order to print 4 million secondary textbooks. He finished printing 800,000 books in the last 11 days, he said.
Besides paper, the power crisis is another issue that hinders their work, he said. "A lot of problems exist right now but we're trying our best. Power cuts have decreased to some extent. It'll be another problem if this increases again. A large quantity of paper gets wasted due to outages and using the generator is expensive. Also, it requires a larger quantity of glue when there's a power disruption."
Whether he makes a profit or not, Farazi said, he could supply 80 percent of the textbooks on Jan 1, if not 100 percent. "But it's not the issue whether I can supply the books or not. We need to see if everyone can do so."
WHAT NCTB SAYS
After speaking to all the stakeholders, Minister Dipu Moni had assured that students would receive textbooks on Jan 1. But the reality looks much different, according to the officials supervising the textbook printing process.
NCTB Chairman Farhadul hoped to receive most of the textbooks by December which can be distributed on Jan 1.
“I hope to receive all textbooks for secondary level before Jan 1. If primary students don’t get the textbooks by Jan 1, they’ll get them by Jan 15,” he said.
The chairman highlighted the problems behind the current crisis in textbook printing. “There’s a scarcity of paper as well as power supply. No virgin pulp was imported in Bangladesh this year. Paper mill owners didn’t import paper as the price doubled. We do have secondary pulp in the country, but the virgin pulp is needed for the brightness we want. For that, the traders are asking a high price. Printers want us to compromise with the brightness and paper quality.”
Prof Farhad, however, saw many drawbacks of tax-free paper import as demanded by the printers.
“The government needs to ensure that the local paper mills survive. Tax-free paper import will harm the local paper mills,” he said. “Also, it’ll take a month to import duty-free paper.”
The chairman also said the tender process was delayed as it took two months to decide whether the primary textbooks would be printed at home or abroad. “And now the printers are taking this delay as an opportunity to tap out some benefits from the government,” he said.
The government decided to start the textbook printing tender process in January next year to avoid complications, he said.
[Writing in English by Sabrina Karim Murshed]