The whole world is now facing a health disaster of a scale never seen earlier. The Covid-19 pandemic has reached every nook and corner of the globe. This is unprecedented in human history. Even two World Wars could not create so much uncertainty and dislocation. All the sectors including health are in jeopardy. Lives and livelihoods are under severe stress. More than a hundred million people have lost jobs, and many have joined the ranks of new poor, hopefully temporarily. The education sector has been worst affected, and it might take many more years to rebuild the human capital which has been badly damaged. People normally look up to a courageous leader to guide them through such a disaster. Such leaders must have a deep understanding of the local needs and a strong grip of the global values. S/he must be compassionate, bold, and innovative.
Bangabandhu was one such leader who demonstrated excellent skills in disaster management with almost no resources in hand. His capacity to mobilise volunteers and exude hope and compassion even in trying times proved instrumental in managing disasters– both natural and man-made. This trait of Bangabandhu was ingrained in his personality right from his boyhood and further flourished during his political career. That is why I believe his thoughts and actions on disaster management can be educative for us all, particularly in the present context of global crisis.Thanks to his autobiographical writings and the ‘secret documents’ maintained by the intelligence branch of the Pakistani police department, most people know that Bangabandhu was a humane and compassionate leader. He used to be a grassroots man and remained sensitive to the needs of marginalised groups. From his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ we learn that during his childhood the woes of hunger-stricken people agitated his young soul. He pressurised his father to give rice from their family stocks to those in need. This quality of his humane leadership was further nurtured when he started an organisation namely ‘Muslim Welfare Association’ with his house tutor Abdul Hamid as the leader. This organisation used to collect alms in the form of rice from the neighbouring villages with a view to facilitating the education of the students coming from poorer families. Young Sheikh Mujib continued it even after the sudden death of his teacher Abdul Hamid.
As a result, after he grew up to be a student leader in Islamia College, Calcutta, Bangabandhu demonstrated his compassionate leadership qualities in the great famine of 1943. He took up the responsibility of operating gruel kitchens to help hunger-stricken people across Bengal, first in Calcutta and later in Gopalganj. He was patronised by his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in running these gruel kitchens. But as a leader, his thoughts went beyond just humanitarian response during a crisis, and we find him to be keen on identifying the root causes behind man-made disasters. He saw, on the one hand, hundreds of thousands of the rural people stricken by the famine were moving en masse to urban areas in search of food and, on the other hand, the colonial British government was busy with its war preparations, requisitioning transports including railway compartments and boats to maintain military supply lines. Because of the government policy, the food distribution system was badly affected and there was a severe scarcity of food in many areas of Bengal leading to the great Bengal famine of 1943. After relentless persuasion from Bangabandhu, his political mentor and the then minister of civil supplies Shaheed Suhrawardy decided to open gruel kitchens across Calcutta and other parts of Bengal. Young Sheikh Mujib mobilised several volunteers from his college and started running these kitchens for the famine-stricken hapless people who were rushing to the city for food. He was so focused on the management of gruel kitchens that he barely found time to rest in the hostel. He often fell asleep on a table near the kitchen. Later, he ran similar gruel kitchens in Gopalganj as well.
Just before the partition, intense riots broke out all over colonial India due to religious polarisations. Bangabandhu was heartbroken witnessing the violence of those riots. Once again, under the directives of Suhrawardy, young Sheikh Mujib started overseeing the operation of relief camps for the people uprooted by riots. This time he went as far as Patna to help the suffering people. He worked so hard while managing those relief camps that he fell sick and had to be hospitalised in Calcutta for a few weeks. Here again, Suhrawardy came forward to admit him to a good hospital in Calcutta. But this deep communal divide made him concerned about fundamentalist surges in the political landscape of the Indian sub-continent. This misuse of religion in politics, he thought, was at the root of the man-made disaster– the riots. He remained sensitive to this curse of civilisation and always pushed for secularism in politics throughout his political career. The 1972 constitution of Bangladesh, therefore, is anchored on secularism as one of its four core pillars.
While the Pakistan elites continuously promoted communal politics to hinder democratic political movements, Bangabandhu took his political campaign along a liberal-democratic line acknowledging equal rights for people of all religions and castes and creeds. To quell the movement in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) for autonomy, the Pakistan government indirectly encouraged Hindu vs. Muslim riots in 1964. Bangabandhu, accompanied by his comrades, went to Narayanganj and old Dhaka to stop these riots. He rallied on the streets of Dhaka holding banners saying “Purbo Pakistan Rukhiya Darao” (East Pakistan Resist). In this manner, he mobilised the broader society and sensitised the people against the man-made disaster of communal riots. His sensible and humane leadership not only saved many lives but also preserved the political movement of autonomy (and eventually independence). He never allowed this to be derailed from its secular goal.
As a humane leader, Bangabandhu responded with equal (if not more) urgency to major natural disasters that hit the country. His political goals and programmes came second whenever there was a call to stand by the people because of any major natural disaster. On 11 May 1965, a cyclone hit the southern part of the country. Bangabandhu amid his crucial campaign for economic justice for his people rushed to the distressed people of South Bengal on 23 May, 1965. He urged the government to declare an emergency to help those who lost their lives and livelihoods. He started working to provide relief to those people and even got injured. In December of the same year, another cyclone stuck Cox’s Bazar, Sonadia and Maheshkhali. Bangabandhu again was the first to respond and was on the spot of the disaster in a matter of days. He also responded quickly to the great cyclone of November 15, 1970.
After the mass uprising of 1969, the autocratic Ayub regime gave in and, another military government led by General Yahya Khan came to power. The new government pledged to hold a general election in 1970 based on ‘one person one vote’ principle, dumping the so-called basic democracy of the earlier regime. Bangabandhu immediately grabbed this opportunity to get people’s mandate for his historic Six Points and finally lead this country in the right direction. Indeed, the 1970s national election turned out to be the climax of his long and arduous political campaign. As already noted, when his election campaign was at its peak, a cyclone hit the southern parts of the country. Over a million lives were lost. And economic losses were unimaginable. Bangabandhu immediately stopped his election campaign and hurried towards Barisal, Khulna and Patuakhali. The central government was too slow to respond to this devastating crisis. Because of Bangabandhu’s efforts, the inefficiency of the central government in managing the disaster came to the light of the international media. International development partners started responding to the needs of the people. On 26 November 1970, in a press conference, Bangabandhu said, “The saddest part of this ordeal is the government’s complete failure. Despite knowing about the cyclone via ‘Superco’ and weather satellites two days before it hit the coast, the government did not adequately warn the people living along the coast… If effective relief initiatives were undertaken within 24 hours of the disaster, we could have saved thousands of lives. Many people who survived the cyclone would not have to die because of hunger, not having shelters and without medical care.” (Dr. A. H. Khan (edited), “Jatir Pita Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon (Selected Speeches of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu)”, First Part, page 27-28).Once Bangabandhu took the helm of newly liberated Bangladesh, he got the much-awaited opportunity to use his experience in disaster management to shape related policies and programmes. His prudent diplomacy helped Bangladesh gain a lot of humanitarian support from international communities to recover from the damages done during the war in 1971. His experience in conducting relief work for the cyclone-affected people enriched the cyclone preparedness programme which was officially initiated in 1973. He was well aware that the government alone would not manage large-scale disasters and, hence, mobilised a large number of volunteers to build coastal embankments, cyclone shelters, and higher platforms known as ‘Killas’ for sheltering people and cattle during cyclones. Despite the scarcity of resources and having a lot of other priorities, such as rebuilding the agriculture and industry of the war-torn country, Bangabandhu allocated on average 11 per cent of the national budget between 1972 and 1975 for disaster preparedness.
Climate change was yet to become prominent in public discourse as it is today. Yet Bangabandhu identified the Sundarbans as a natural infrastructure that would defend the coastline of Bangladesh against major cyclones in the future. He insisted on preserving this mangrove forest for the long-term benefit of the country. In a speech on 16 July 1972, within the very first year of Bangladesh’s independence, Bangabandhu said, “Nature has given the Sundarbans to protect Bangladesh… If we cannot save this, at some point in future Khulna, Barisal, Patuakhali, a part of Comilla, and some parts of Dhaka – the entire lower part of the country will be submerged and Hatia and Swandip will be completely lost… We have lost a lot of the forest. We need to know why. And for that, we have started special research and education programmes.” (Dr. A. H. Khan (edited), “Jatir Pita Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon (Selected Speeches of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu)”, Third Part, page 33). That Bangabandhu was proven to be so right in forecasting the impact of climate change has been lately demonstrated by the reduced damage of the super cyclone Amphan, which was weakened by the presence of the Sundarbans.
Bangabandhu’s farsighted disaster management policies and initiatives benefitted Bangladesh in the long run. His legacy is now being borne by his able daughter, our honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. As a result, Bangladesh has become a role model of disaster management for the rest of the world. Bangladesh is also doing well in coping with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic as it has been able to take the ‘whole of the society’ approach in facing this disaster as was always practiced by Bangabandhu. We need to continue following the path shown by Bangabandhu, and properly prioritise the needs of people amid disasters and come together as a society (state and non-state actors alike) in a coordinated fashion. Disasters are indeed great educators and we must learn from the legacy of managing disasters in the past, as demonstrated by Bangabandhu and, subsequently, his daughter.
The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. Email: [email protected]