Monday, 29 May, 2023

Economist Prof Nurul Islam dies

Professor Nurul Islam, a celebrated economist and the deputy chairman of Bangladesh’s first planning commission, passed away on Monday in Washington DC of the United States. He was 94.

He breathed his last around 12:00 pm local time. He suffered a cardiac arrest, according to a Bengali newspaper published from the USA.

A Harvard-trained economist and teacher at the University of Dhaka, Islam was at  the forefront of raising awareness about the economic disparity between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan since the late 1950s.

He achieved PhD from Harvard University in 1955 after completing bachelor and masters in economics from Dhaka University.

In 1964, Dr Islam was appointed as head of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) in Karachi, a move the Pakistani authorities acquiesced to silence the vocal economist and take him out of Dhaka but Dr Islam managed to relocate the headquarters of the Institute to Dhaka within a few years. 

Dr Islam was a close associate of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. When he first met the great leader in 1969, Bangabandhu asked him to sit for a detailed meeting.

Soon after that meeting Dr Islam became a part of the team that drafted the Awami League’s manifesto for the 1970’s elections. He was specifically tasked with mapping out different manifestations of the implementation of the six-point demand.

Following the independence of Bangladesh, Dr Islam refused to head the Development Research Center at the World Bank in Washington for a role in rebuilding the country. With Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman acting as the chairman of the newly founded commission, Islam became its deputy chairman at the status of a minister, while his colleagues Mosharraf Hossain, Anisur Rahman and Rehman Sobhan, became members of the commission.

After independence, Pakistan demanded that Bangladesh should take the responsibility of the ‘Consortium of Donors’ or aid donors, amounting to 1.2 billion dollars. Bangladesh led by him protested the claim.

Donor sat in a meeting to resolve the issue. Finally, the delegation of Bangladesh was able to reduce this demand to 400 million dollars. Bangladesh took the responsibility of the projects that took place only in this region. Nurul Islam played a leading role in this discussion.

Bangladesh was added to the list of least developed countries (LDC) in 1975 due to the efforts of Professor Nurul Islam. Being an LDC country, Bangladesh has got various benefits including duty-free trade facilities.

Dr Islam was annoyed over repeated interruption of politicians and bureaucrats in the decision making process of the planning commission which had the final say in approving or rejecting development projects.

By the middle of 1973 the commission had completed the first five-year plan in independent Bangladesh and Islam and his colleagues were ready to leave, but Bangabandhu offered him to join politics. Islam politely told Bangabandhu that he has a different goal and he left the country in March 1975.

After the assassination of Bangabandhu and most of his family members, he moved to Rome to work at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, where he served as a director general of the economic and social development department.

From there he moved to International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. In 1987, he became a senior policy advisor of the organisation’s director general. He had served as an emeritus fellow at the IFPRI till his last breath.

He has credit of penning some 25 books, including ‘Making of a Nation Bangladesh: An Economist’s Tale’ and ‘An Odyssey: The Journey of My Life’.