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National Mourning DaySpecial Supplement

Challenges Bangabandhu Faced in Rebuilding Bangladesh

Dr Atiur Rahman

Challenges Bangabandhu Faced in Rebuilding Bangladesh
Dr Atiur Rahman

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Bangabandhu returned to independent Bangladesh from captivity on January 10, 1972. This was indeed a journey from ‘darkness to light’, and from ‘desolation to hope’ as cogently articulated by him at the New Delhi Airport. Furthermore, his first few words in the massive gathering at the Racecourse (now Suhrawardy Udyan) on that auspicious day included, “this independence will be meaningless if the people could not be fed, and the youths not provided with employment.” These words aptly captured his mind about the challenges that lay ahead. Indeed, both the economy and society of Bangladesh were badly destroyed and shaken by the war. The freedom fighters with arms were all around as a significant pressure group and the collaborators were changing their colours just to lie low and buy time to hit back which they did later.

However, the communal forces and the extreme left forces who opposed the war of liberation were exposed but not contained. They remained a destabilising force to be reckoned with. The provincial weak administration was yet to be transformed into a cohesive central government. The owners of businesses and administration, mostly Pakistanis, left Bangladesh during the last phase of the war.

So, the new government led by Bangabandhu faced severe challenges in all fronts. However, the challenges in the economic front were indeed grave. The number one challenge was how to feed the millions of people when there were no food stocks and not a dollar in the foreign exchange reserve. The war of liberation disrupted the economy including agriculture. Moreover, there were persistent flood during the war and subsequent years with huge impact on the level of food production. The village economy was dislocated on both counts. Due to war as many as ten million people were forced to become refugees. Nearly two million were internally displaced. More than four million houses were either destroyed or burnt and so many of the cattle were slaughtered for food by the occupying forces. As a result, there was an immediate and significant decline in production of rice, jute, and tea. The stocks of food, seed and other inputs were substantially depleted. The production capacity of the rural economy encompassing draft animal, irrigation pumps, fishing boats and nets were either destroyed or damaged. The transport system linking the supply chains of agricultural products was heavily damaged impacting severely on the marketing system. Many of the land and water related agricultural development projects were interrupted due to war. The industrial sector was also badly affected due to loss of raw materials and spare parts, lack of maintenance, transfer of monetary assets to West Pakistan leaving no foreign exchange behind and exodus of top managers and skilled workers along with the Pakistani entrepreneurs. Moreover, the market disruptions followed as most of the international business connections were lost. Most industries had to be taken under state control just to keep on the industrial production. The banks too were nationalized to keep on financing of the economy including the farmers and industrial units.

On the infrastructure front, the transport system was badly damaged by the war including the major installations like the seaports, bridges, roads, and highways. The complex interlinkages between seaports, inland waterways, railways, and roads which constituted the transport system was seriously disrupted. All this created major hurdles to timely distribution of food in addition to constraining the efforts to rehabilitate the economy. The social infrastructures had to be reconstructed from the scratches. The provincial government had to be upgraded to central government. A new central bank had to be created as well. The foreign policy had to be relaunched with new slogan of ‘friendship to all and malign to none’ with smart diplomacy to get the country recognised by most countries. The membership to international financial and development agencies had to be ensured with fees donated by Canada and Sweden. India also gave initial chunk of foreign exchange support to restart the foreign trade and other international businesses. In addition, the gold-dollar fixed exchange rate was suddenly made floatable with huge implication for the countries like Bangladesh. Simultaneously the prices of oil, food and other daily necessities went up astronomically. As a result, the rate of inflation went up beyond control (65 % plus) not only in Bangladesh but also in most developing countries.

Besides economic and infrastructural challenges, the newly independent country faced severe social unrest. The tensions built up between the younger militants and the older moderates in addition to undercurrent of the same in bureaucracy and the military. Bangabandhu realised the danger and urged for national unity. His strong stance helped mop up the arms from the freedom fighters and departure of the Indian forces.

Yet, many of the senior opposition leaders including his respected leader Maulana Bhashani could not come out of their myopic view about the national reconstruction which was not at all helpful for a new nation. Many youths became restless and joined forces to destabilise the society and the government at the instigation of collaborators of Pakistan army who were continued to be heavily aided by defeated Pakistani intelligence. International food aid politics also helped raise the frustrations of the disgruntled segments of the society to some extent. These forces were sabotaging the post-war efforts of the government in stabilising the society and the economy.

Despite these burning challenges, Bangabandhu stood like a rock and faced the problems one by one. He could think long standing on the debris of the war. He was dreaming of ‘Sonar Bangla’ or prosperous Bangladesh when the size of the economy was only of eight billion US Dollars with per capita income of only 93 USD. The growth rate of the economy during 1970-71 was minus 12 per cent. There was not even a Dollar in the exchequer. Yet, he was not daunted by these challenges. He believed in the fighting spirit of the people who demonstrated their courage and capability of how to face the challenges during the war. Therefore, social mobilization was at the core of his strategy. The medium and long-term goals of his economic philosophy included:

1.            Achieving self-reliance by mobilizing domestic resources including social capital by engaging all segments of the society. Agriculture was specially supported for improved food production.

2.            Acceptance of foreign assistance including food aid which had no strings. This foreign dependence had to be reduced gradually as the country’s development process gained pace.

3.            There would be scope for the private sector to flourish while the economy was still primarily state led. There will be also scope for cooperative system to complement both public and private sector.

4.            The country will try to encourage equity and social justice by implementing socialist transformation of its indigenous kind where democracy will also play its role. In other words, there will be social democratic system in place where the state will play dominant role in investing in people i.e., education, health, and social protection.  He wanted to walk on both legs of agriculture and industry for balanced development.And he was moving on with desired results despite many challenges.

Bangabandhu had both short-term and long-term priorities in facing those challenges. Of course, the core of those priorities was how to improve the lot of the masses. In alignment to his life-long commitment for people’s prosperity, he said, “This independence will be meaningful to me only when the woes of the farmers, laborers and the deprived of Bangladesh end.” As a part of his core development philosophy of achieving a ‘society without exploitation’ his immediate priorities were:

1.            The rehabilitation of the refugees with appropriate relief until the first harvest.

2.            Reestablishing law and order to avoid anarchy in the face of ample supply of arms left over from the war period.

3.            Adequate supplies of food had to be collected and distributed through a broken transport system. His government initiated a comprehensive rationing system both in the rural and urban areas. Also, the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh was established to import necessary daily necessities to bolster the supply chain of these products.

4.            The political and administrative structure had to be reorganized from provincial to central government system with required reconstitution of various institutions.

5.            The task of reconstruction and restoration of the economy had to be commenced immediately to avoid any chaos and tensions in the society.

In addition, to these immediate tasks, the government of Bangabandhu prioritised some long-term goals for national development in the new context including modernising agriculture to promote green revolution for boosting food production through greater public investment in agriculture, raising consciousness and input support for family planning and spread of primary education throughout the country by nationalising the jobs of the primary school teachers. Other long-term goals of rights-based inclusive development were firmly ingrained in the constitution and the first five-year plan. His efforts in adapting the prudent monetary policy and demonetisation of the high value currency note were aimed at calming inflation. In addition to improved supplies of food and daily necessities, these strategic moves by Bangabandhu helped lower the inflation rate by almost half in a couple of years. At one stage the inflation went up to 65 percent which was brought down to about 30 per cent in 1975. Also, his passionate appeal for higher agricultural production was heeded by the farmers and a bumper Aman paddy crop was in the sight. But the enemies of Bangladesh didn’t give him that opportunity to see the turnaround in food production. It may be noted here that he was always deeply pained while asking for food aid.

Bangabandhu was a pragmatic leader. As already argued, while driving for self-sufficiency in food he was not averse to international support for feeding his people. His first budget was a surplus budget with substantial foreign assistance and continued to be deriving resources both from domestic and international sources. In fact, he asked for both for the infrastructural rehabilitation and development to reconstruct his country. He even took ferries from the international NGOs like OXFAM to restore the disrupted transport system. Bangladesh became a member of the World Bank Aid Consortium and continued to borrow externally with no strings under his dynamic leadership. He formally thanked the friendly international community in Jamaica while attending the Commonwealth Summit for their generous support for which Bangladesh was making a turnaround in its economic recovery. His speech at the General Assembly of the UN in September 1974 was also a very strategic in advocating for a new economic order. However, he was more local than global in his development strategy and always put more emphasis on agriculture and rural development. His First Five Year Plan allocated 24 percent of investment fund to agriculture as against 20 per cent for industry. The education got 7.1 percent. This tells clearly that he was a farsighted down to earth statesman who wanted to hug tightly the bottom of the social pyramid.

Bangabandhu was a great aesthetic and compassionate leader. Always a people’s protagonist, he could generate enough emotions among his followers who were encouraged to engage in political struggle for decades. He was very keen on developing his co-leaders who were adequately mentored by him to take charge of leading the war of liberation on his behalf. They thrived on his fighting spirit which was skillfully transmitted to the nation at war. He could reach people from all walks of life in liberating and reconstructing the country. He believed in maximum engagement with the people. He was a secular leader who never allowed religion to mix up with politics. Amartya Sen, therefore, calls him Biswabandhu (Friend of the World) along with his homegrown title of Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal). He was focused on peace and pro-people development. He will be remembered for his long-term vision and dream of a prosperous Bangladesh (‘Sonar Bangla’) who emphasized on planned approach to people-centric development.

Alas! Bangladesh was deprived of the contributions of this charismatic, visionary, and down to earth precious leadership by a bunch of traitors who killed him at the black night of August 15, 1975. But Bangabandhu is eternal. None can deprive us of his dream and the fighting spirit duly delivered to the nation. Bangladesh, therefore, continues to move on following the contours of his chosen path of inclusive and sustainable development under the dynamic leadership of his able daughter. Indeed, the legacy of the leadership matters. May his soul live in peace.

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The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank.