The months of March and April are important for Bangladesh. Every Bangladeshi remembers March 7, 1971 with respect when Bangabandhu addressed all of us and told us to prepare ourselves for our Liberation War. March 17, the birthday of Bangabandhu, is celebrated by all of us as the National Children’s Day.
For the first time, this year, we have also observed March 25 as Genocide Day; March 26 has also been observed as our Independence Day. April 17 is also observed as the historic Mujibnagar Day.
These two months have become the cornerstones of our history. They reflect the determination and commitment of our people to move forward, face existing challenges, and overcome them.
It is this approach that has encouraged me today to recall the difficult period faced by all of us in the early months of 1972; and the innovative and dedicated leadership of Bangabandhu, his cabinet and the relatively weak bureaucratic infrastructure for reconstruction of the war-affected Bangladesh.
At that time, 45 years ago, I had come back to Dhaka from London (after seeking political asylum there during the liberation struggle) and joined the newly created Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of January under Bangabandhu.
It was towards the end of July when the prime minister’s secretariat, after consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information decided to publish a souvenir in Bengali and English on the occasion of the first anniversary of our upcoming Victory Day on December 16, 1972.
It was going to be the first effort to put on paper the total paradigm of what Bangladesh had undergone in 1971 and what efforts were being undertaken by the government under Bangabandhu’s leadership towards the restoration of normalcy in a war-affected nation.
A board of editors was constituted on the order of Bangabandhu, chaired by Syed Ali Ahsan. The design and lay-out sub-committee was chaired by Artist Qamrul Hassan and also included other eminent artists -- Kalam Mahmood, Rafiqunnabi, and Qayyum Chowdhury.
It was decided that the publication would include articles written on different subjects related to the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country. There were nine articles and an appendix that contained basic facts and other miscellaneous information about Bangladesh. The board decided that the publication, titled “Bangladesh” had to be ready by the beginning of November, 1972 so that it could be shared with the growing diplomatic representation inside Bangladesh, with our friends abroad as well as with others through the diplomatic missions we had opened abroad. Emphasis was also given on engaging with representatives of the foreign media interested in following how a war-devastated country was recovering from its travails.
The board -- after consultation with Bangabandhu -- decided that I should write on “reconstruction of Bangladesh.” It was probably the most difficult task I had undertaken in my life.
It would be pertinent to recall that with December 16, 1971, the country stepped into the next phase of her life
This was so because the nine month genocide of 1971 had left Bangladesh a devastated country with her economy in shambles and her basic infrastructure, records, and framework badly scarred. Obtaining reliable data was the most difficult. I will try and recall some of the salient points of this article.
It would be pertinent to recall here that with the liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, the country stepped into the next phase of her life -- the struggle for survival, which can only be described as dramatic and challenging. In the few months that were to follow, Bangladesh had to coordinate herself into one compact unit to overcome the staggering, existing and evolving problems.
The fate of the people
Her first test came on the question of rehabilitation of the nearly 10 million refugees who had sought shelter in the neighboring states of India. This continuous stream had to be provided with instant ration and basic transportation to return to their respective homes in rural or urban areas. The sick and disabled had to be provided with all adequate care. Food and clothing also had to be procured in bulk to meet the daily exigencies.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation were given top priority and a recovery program started despite the challenge of practically not having any significant foreign exchange reserve.
The recovery program prioritised the following areas -- (a) making adequate provisions for economic rehabilitation of all the cultivators, weavers, fishermen, artisans, and craftsmen who had lost their tools and implements, thereby giving priority to the vast majority of the population who lived in the rural areas; (b) providing financial assistance to those students and teachers who were facing difficulty in resuming their respective academic responsibilities; (c) setting up homes for orphans and distressed women in the sub-divisional headquarters of the country; (d) ensuring distribution of electricity and bringing it up to about 60% of the monthly average of 1969-70; (e) rehabilitating the dislocated transport and communication system of the country to ensure necessary movement of goods; and (f) ensuring safe drinking water in the rural areas to prevent the outbreak of epidemics.
To achieve this task, the resource-starved government managed to allocate Tk107.31 crore from available funds for completing the first phase of the desired work by June, 1972. The second phase started from the end of June and the new budget year.
Continued emphasis was given on emergency rural housing, rehabilitation, and welfare of war destitutes.
It was also decided that the transport, power, and industry sectors which had suffered during the war would be brought back within the reconstruction program. Economists pointed out that the transport sector (roads, railways, civil aviation, and internal shipping including ports) in particular had suffered losses of about Tk122.65cr and required immediate attention. The result of joint efforts carried out in the transport sector, in particular, was remarkable.
Consequently, it was decided by the board of editors that my article on reconstruction of Bangladesh would have a photograph of the Hardinge Bridge in a broken and unusable condition (as a result of the war) and another photograph of the bridge in a restored condition (with the help of Indian engineers) -- a symbol of overcoming challenges within the shortest possible time.
Urgent steps were also taken for the rehabilitation of the damaged transmission and distribution lines in the power sector. Substations at Ishurdi, Ullon, and Khilgaon were repaired. Soon the Siddirganj, Bheramara, Rupganj, Dinajpur, and Meherpur power stations were also brought back on and the grid lines were restored.
In the agriculture sector, the government on the advice of international agencies decided to take steps to improve the desperate situation by introducing greater units of fertilisers and pesticides. Within the industrial sector, particular emphasis was given to access to scarce working capital and supply of imported and local raw materials. This resulted in substantial movement forward in terms of meeting operational costs and achieving minimum targets.
The degree of success in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-devastated Bangladesh was noted with appreciation by UNROD -- who noted that coordinated efforts of Bangladesh and the international community had led to this country “facing no starvation, no unmanageable law and order problem.”
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]