The 1972 post-liberation period in Bangladesh was chaotic. A number of challenges needed emergency attention, and a course of action had to be determined immediately. A strategic approach to rehabilitation and restoration was needed. Hopes were pinned on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose government, with very limited experience and support, had to handle one of the largest relief and rehabilitation programmes in the world. In this pursuit, he urgently needed to set up an effective governance structure. The wounds of the war were still raw. In particular, the country needed to support 10 million refugees from India as well as 20 million internally displaced persons.

During the war, all communication, social and industrial infrastructure had been targeted. Transportation networks had been destroyed – bridges, roads, culverts, railways and waterways. More than 300 rail and road bridges had been demolished. The damage done in the transportation and communication sector was estimated at USD 160 million. The main trading hub, Chittagong Port, had been ruined. Nearly 22,000 educational institutions, including 18,000 primary schools, had been damaged. The cost to public assets stood at USD 350 million.

The challenges before Mujib were thus huge, especially in the early phase of the reconstruction process. The government took up this Herculean task along with its development partners. It was estimated that the reintegration of refugees and the internally displaced would require the construction of 43 million houses. The immediate nutritional need, estimated in consultation with international development agencies, was some 15 million metric tonnes of food grains. Waterways – the main mode of transport – needed an immediate revamp.

Collaboration with development partners

The massive relief and rehabilitation programme of the Mujib government was supported by the international development community, including UN agencies. Oxfam and a few other international agencies also came forward to assist. The UN (which was a much more impactful player than it is today) and the associated international agencies were already well integrated into the system as a result of the Bengali refugee crisis response in 1971 in India. The government instigated reform of the Red Cross Society from national to grassroots level. All of these efforts led to some USD 130 million being channelled into Bangladesh for relief and rehabilitation.

Support to the population and revival of the country’s communication networks, to move food around the country, were a priority, to stimulate the economy and set it on a long-term development track. Oxfam’s Overseas Aid Director at that time, Ken Bennett, wrote in a report in March 1972:

I doubt if it would be an exaggeration to say that on the extent to which a solution to the problem of food imports and the restoration of communications can be quickly found may well depend the future of Bangladesh as a State.

And yet Mujib’s administration was able to ensure refugees could return in an efficient manner.

Boat carrying the volunteers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Bangladesh, 1972. They are conveying relief supplies (baby food) to the northeastern part of Bangladesh to Marapura resettlement camp in Sylhet. Collaboration on food distribution by international agencies and the government was vital to tackling the rehabilitation strategy of returning refugees in 1972. | Photo: ICRC / Jean-Jacques Kurz.

Mujib considered waterways the lifeline of the country. Under his direction, Oxfam procured three truck-carrying ferries. To reflect the country’s poetry and music, reflected in its flora and fauna, these were named after flowers. Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi continue to cross the Padma River at Mawa to this day, more than 48 years later. Oxfam was also a key actor in repairing hundreds of other ferries across the country. Within a year or two, the water transport system in Bangladesh was facilitating the movement of goods and people around the country. This prioritisation of the waterways had been timely and reflected Mujib’s intelligence – and his commitment to a sustainable and environmentally-friendly solution even in an emergency.

Mujib was quick to set up the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, as well as a new agency, the Relief Committee, to manage the rehabilitation programme. Individual international development agencies were charged with specific sectors. In coordination with various stakeholders, local-level coordination committees were also formed. The initial phase, a short-term rehabilitation programme of six months, emphasised basic provision of services (shelter and food) for nearly 2 million displaced people.

Transfer of Bengali civilians from India under the auspices of the international development partners to the southern Bangladeshi town of Comilla in 1972. In massive settlement assignment before the international agencies and the Mujib administration was done phase-wise. In 1972 itself more than 5 million people was resettled, making it one of the largest and fastest rehabilitation success story. | Photo: ICRC / André Jolliet.

The goal was to reduce the immediate threat of homelessness and to establish initial livelihood activities, alongside rehabilitation of the communication system. These quick relief measures came at a cost of around USD 140 million. The restoration of the water supply and irrigation in rural areas was estimated at around USD 1.5 million, and housing at USD 40 million.

The government and the response community initiated the second phase of rehabilitation at the end of 1972, allocating USD 82 million. Mujib’s administration focused on the resolution of problems affecting rural households and assistance to those who had lost their livelihoods in the war. Destitute women and orphaned children were targeted under this phase. The government put in place plans to construct 166,000 permanent houses in rural areas and distributed 14 million metric tonnes of food grains. To boost the agriculture sector, Mujib decided to waive cultivable land taxes along with interest.

A success less remarked upon

Arrival of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commission-in-Charge Enrico Bignami in Dhaka 1972. The work carried out by the ICRC in Bangladesh, particularly between 1971 and 1975, in collaboration with Mujib’s government was extensive. During that period, among its many activities in the country, the ICRC distributed around 2.8 million Red Cross messages which helped reunite several hundred families dispersed by conflict. | Photo: ICRCConflict between India and Pakistan. Dacca airport. Arrival of ICRC commissioner in charge of operation for Sub-Asiatic Continent.

Mujib’s administration successfully coordinated one of the largest relief programmes of the Cold War era. Given global price hikes and the restrictive politics surrounding aid at the time, Bangladesh faced a situation of very limited resources and tools. Innovation in operations was the only way forward, with everything done in a sustainable and consultative manner. And yet this success story is rarely mentioned when discussing best practice in relief work.

A UN survey of the relief efforts of the government and international development partners concluded that 5 million out of some 10 million refugees had returned and been rehabilitated. In addition to housing for returnees, land was allocated to the landless (some 9,000 plots were provided). The report also points to the quick response on the governance end, in what would have otherwise become uncontrollable chaos, as a direct result of Mujib’s coordination skills. After meeting Mujib in November 1972, then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim urged the Security Council to grant Bangladesh some USD 500 million.

Mujib’s administration put in place a model for a sustainable relief strategy for Bangladesh. There were flaws, of course. For example, more accountability was needed. Many in the government, especially politicians and bureaucrats, ended up bagging a share of the resources for personal use. This tarnished the efforts of development partners and the government. Mujib repeatedly reminded everyone in government positions that they should dedicate themselves to the service of the people, that they were the servants of the people. He also ordered that no luxury items such as air conditioners, carpets and furniture be purchased.

The British era Hardinge Bridge over the mighty Padma River in northern part of Bangladesh. During the time of the liberation war, a total of 10 spans of Hardinge Bridge were destroyed. It was the biggest railway bridge of Bangladesh at the time. In 1972 the government reconstruct all the spans. This was a major connectivity infrastructure project of Mujib’s administration. It was among the fast-tracked projects to jumpstart the economy.

In his speech of 10 January 1972, the day on which he returned to Bangladesh, Mujib had said:

My brothers, you know that we have a lot of work to do. I want all my people to begin working on repairing broken roads. I want you all to go back to the fields and cultivate paddy. I want to say, not a single employee should take bribes. Remember, it was not an opportune time then, but now, I will not forgive those who take bribes.

Reconstruction, relief and rehabilitation were constantly on Mujib’s mind and he reiterated this focus time and again.

Lessons and impacts

After witnessing the former government failing to respond to a devastating cyclone in 1970, Mujib was adamant to bring about a change in disaster management. His administration immediately formulated a Disaster Preparedness Plan to reduce losses through natural hazards. This set the standard for disaster preparedness in Bangladesh till today. One of the salient features of this was the construction of climate-resilient rural housing as well as flood/cyclone centres in disaster-prone areas. People were able to transfer their livestock to these disaster-resistant houses, which came to be known as ‘Mujib killas’ (Mujib fortresses), and thus could start to protect their assets. The discharge of water through bridges and culverts meant their crops would be saved and contribute to poverty reduction. Climate-resilient housing, innovated during the Mujib era, is still relevant in today’s disaster relief plans.

During War of Liberation the infrastructure was completely destroyed. Here is a broken bridge near Thakurgaon in northern Bangladesh in 1972. | Photo by Jean-Jacques Kurz.

Management of the inflow of millions of people, and their subsequent rehabilitation, was an early lesson for Bangladesh and has been engrained in the approach of the country’s development community ever since. The current very real concerns regarding the plight and future of the Rohingya refugees resonate with the experiences of the past. Bangladesh, along with its development partners, has once again shown that relief operations with limited resources are possible. The blueprint for this response was formed during Mujib’s time. Bangladesh’s remarkable progress in disaster management and climate resilience, for example through formulation of the Delta Plan 2100, can also be traced back to the Mujib era.

It is to Bangladesh’s immense credit that it has survived and prospered, and is now self-sufficient in the production of basic food grains, which can be moved efficiently around the country. In addition, Bangladesh by 2015, had achieved most of the Millennium Development Goals, and is now focused on achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Julian Francis
Julian Francis is an independent development and disability consultant, and a humanitarian activist. He has worked in many poverty-alleviation projects in Bangladesh. He has worked with the extreme poor in Bangladesh and India, with nearly 30 years in Bangladesh. He coordinated Oxfam’s refugee relief operations in India in 1971 covering over 50 refugee camps and 600,000 Bangladeshi refugees. He was awarded Friends of Liberation War honor in 2012 and honored with full Bangladesh Citizenship in 2018. He was also honored in 2019 with the British award, OBE, ‘For services to development in Bangladesh.’ He is a qualified agriculture and animal husbandry expert.