The month of March is important for Bangladesh. Every Bangladeshi remembers with respect the 7th of this month when Bangabandhu addressed all of us and told us to prepare ourselves for our War of Liberation. The 17th, the birthday of Bangabandhu, is celebrated as the "National Children's Day". We have also observed this year for the first time the 25th of March as Genocide Day. The 26th of March has also been observed as our Independence and National Day.
March has become part of our history. It reflects the determination and commitment of our people to move forward, face existing challenges and overcome them.
Forty-five years ago, I had come back to Dhaka from London (after seeking political asylum there during the Liberation war) and joined the newly created Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of January, 1972.
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 it included K.G. Mustafa, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir, Professor Nurul Islam, Nurul Islam Patwari and myself as the representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The design and lay-out sub-committee, chaired by Artist Qamrul Hassan, included eminent artists Qayyum Chowdhury, Rafiqunnabi and Kalam Mahmood.
The souvenir featured 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 the country. The authors included Dr. Salahuddin Ahmed, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, D.P. Dhar (Adviser to Indian prime Minister Indira Gandhi), Sardar Fazlul Karim, B.K.Jahangir, Dr. Serajul Islam Choudhury, Nurul Islam Patwari, K.G. Mustafa and myself. The Board decided that the publication, entitled "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 our few diplomatic Missions we had opened abroad.
I was asked to write an article titled "Reconstruction of Bangladesh". I discuss below some of the salient points of the article.
It would be pertinent here to recall here that with the liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, the country stepped into the next phase of its national life - the struggle for survival, which can be described as dramatic and challenging.
The first test came on the question of rehabilitation of the nearly ten million refugees who had sought shelter West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh of India. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates available on December 01, 1971, there were about 6.79 million refugees in different camps. In addition to them, there were about 3.13 million refugees who had taken shelter with friends or relatives. 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 depleted graneries had to be replenished with overnight imports and the disrupted communications network restored for flow of men and materials. Tools of production in the fields, factories and homesteads had to be repaired and raw materials had to be contracted for and rushed in to feed the productive efforts. Food and clothing had to be procured in bulk to meet the daily exigencies. Each of these tasks was as serious as the other.
Sectorwise detailed studies carried out by the government, the United Nations Relief Operation, Dhaka (later to be termed as United Nations Relief Operations, Bangladesh- after the acceptance of Bangladesh as a Member of the United nations in 1974) and other international agencies revealed tentative figures that became a source of great concern for most of the world. The economy in the public sector alone had lost a total physical stock of capital and materials worth Taka 2.76 billion. This, according to economists, had a consequential income loss to the tune of Taka 1.24 billion, on the assumption that output would be growing at the previous rate of 5.0 per cent, with average life of capital being 20 years. In addition to this, the loss of output in the agriculture sector was estimated at Taka 3.76 billion. The retail trade sector had suffered a damage of at least Taka 1.0 billion due to virtual stoppage of distributive trade. The total loss of physical capital amounted roughly to Taka 12.49 billion. The estimate did not include the cumulative effect of the loss of millions of lives and the psychological scars of genocide and rape.
Despite such overwhelming odds, the Bangladesh government, under the inspiring leadership of Bangabandhu, did not buckle down or flinch from its responsibility towards the citizens. Reconstruction and rehabilitation was given top priority and a recovery programme started.
The recovery programme attached priority towards 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 subdivisional headquarters of the country; (d) ensuring distribution of electricity and bringing it up to about 60 per cent 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 availability of safe drinking water in the rural areas to prevent the outbreak of epidemics.
Tthe resource-starved government managed to allocate Taka 1.07 billion from available funds for completing the first phase of rehabilitation task by June, 1972.
The second phase started from the end of June and the new budget year. Continued emphasis was given to rehabilitation of the millions of refugees returning home. This led to financial support in 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 to stream within the reconstruction programme. The transport sector (roads, railways, civil aviation and internal shipping including ports) had suffered losses of about Taka 1.23 billion and required immediate attention. The result of joint efforts for the rehabilitation of the transport sector was really remarkable.
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 afterwards the Siddirganj, Bheramara, Rupganj, Dinajpur and Meherpur power stations were also brought on stream 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 increasing the use of Urea, TSP and Murate of Potash. It was also decided to increase the import of pesticides and better quality seeds. Nearly 24 thousand tons of Irri-20 seeds and 800 tons of Irri- 8 seeds were distributed within this emergency programme. This helped to avert serious food scarcity in 1972.
In the industrial sector, efforts were undertaken to create greater inter-active coordination and engagement between the Bangladesh Industrial Development Corporation, Bangladesh Power Development Corporation, Bangladesh Industrial Technical Assistance Centre and the Bangladesh Small Industries Corporation. Special emphasis was given on 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 housing and settlement sector was divided by the authorities into ten different sectors and each one was allocated an amount geared to meet the immediate basic needs. The sub-sectors included the Building Directorate, the Khulna Development Authority, the Dhaka Improvement Trust, the Chittagong Development Authority, the Public Works Department, the Directorate of Fire Services, the Police Directorate, the Parjatan Sangstha, the Bangladesh Rifles and the Office of the Surveyor General. Bangabandhu took personal interest in the coordinated engagement of these different stake-holders.
In Paper No. 17 titled "Bangladesh: A Survey of Damages and Repairs", the United Nations Register of Damage (UNRoD) highly appreciated the success in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-devasted Bangladesh. The UN body noted that the country faced "no starvation, no unmanageable law and order problem" because of the coordinated efforts of the government and the international community. It observed that "this country is settling down as an organised community with a government working steadily through and towards democratic procedures"
The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.