Remembering November 1970: Catastrophe, Governance and Development

Triggered by the disastrous Bhola Cyclone, the month of November holds considerable significance for how it led to distinct political and developmental trajectories. In an account of the events that followed, the Historicizing BRAC team[1] explores critical dimensions brought forth as a result of the calamity’s impact including the emergence of an independent Bangladesh and the inspiration behind the creation of Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee.

Cyclone victims organized into lines (two of men and one with four women survivors plus one child) waiting for relief distributions from HELP volunteers

November 12th, 1970. One of the deadliest cyclonic storms made landfall 95 kilometres west of Chittagong. In seconds, roughly half a million lives were swept away by the churning walls of muddy water, as high as thirty feet, engulfing the low-lying chars stretched across the delta. Survivors consisted mostly of strong men who could climb high up the trunks of palm trees and hold on through hours of battering by the storm, while scores of women, children, the sick and elderly perished.

The Great Bhola Cyclone, as it was named later, remains one of the deadliest storms in recorded history with estimates of the deaths ranging from 300,000 to 500,000—half of those who died were children. Roughly 3.6 million people were affected, and 13 islands were left completely barren.

It is impossible to say how much damage could be prevented, but the negligence of the Pakistani government in preventing as well as taking precautions was starkly visible. There was no proper comprehensive plan for disaster prevention nor necessary safety measures despite experts’ warnings about the risks (Dunn 1962). The radar station in Potenga, Chittagong, was damaged about a month before the cyclone and was left unrepaired. Thus, it failed to detect the storm. But neither did the government pay heed to the warnings given by foreign meteorological agencies. Consequently, most people did not receive appropriate warnings about the impending danger and were left completely unprepared.

The apathy of the government became clearer after the cyclone. The devastation was met with a torturous silence and sluggish relief efforts by the government. Several calls for declaring a state of national emergency, two days after the cyclone, by Moulana Bhashani, founder of the National Awami Party (NAP) (a political group representing the rural peasantry and working-class), were abruptly dismissed (Dainik Sangbad 1970). The army was not deployed despite mounting concerns for immediate relief. The requests by East Pakistan’s governor for more helicopters to distribute relief were also refused (The Pakistan Observer 1970). Even ten days after the disaster, help did not reach the more remote regions and much of the relief goods were left at the Lahore airport or even when reaching destination, remained undistributed for days. (The Pakistan Observer 1970; Rohde 2014)

The reaction of General Yahya Khan, then President of Pakistan, epitomized the attitude of the Pakistani rulers towards the Bengalis—that their lives mattered little. He was touring China at the time and was supposed to return to Dhaka the day after the storm. But he decided to spend the day for relaxation and visit the day after. During his stay of 24 hours, he showed little concern—journalist Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times found him in a press conference, “walking through with polished boots and a walking stick with a gold knob.” as people starved in the coastal areas. He would also go on to say that the scale of the disaster had been exaggerated and would not acknowledge any negligence on part of the state. Dr Hameeda Hossain, human rights activist and academic who was the editor of Forum[2]in then East Pakistan, said she observed a bizarre festivity among government officials at a reception for participants of the grand Asian Highway Rally soon after the storm. Reflecting on the apathy of the Yahya regime, Archer Blood, American Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan commented, “it was almost as if they just didn’t care” (Bass 2013, 20). The terribly poor governance was interpreted as ‘the Government’s “betrayal” to peoples’ cause’ (The People 1970).

Deadly cyclones occurred in the coastal region of East Pakistan twice a year, on average, between 1959 and 1969. So Bhola was not a surprise. The complete unpreparedness of the government to protect the people from the cyclone reflected how little the Pakistani regime cared (Chowdhury 1970). Their promises to improve warning systems, relief distribution agencies, flood control and cyclone mitigation efforts (Sobhan 1970; Sullivan 1970) had remained on paper for too long. In addition to the severe negligence in safeguarding East Pakistan from natural disasters, the systematic inequality in infrastructure development that the region was facing proved fatal. It is estimated that over 90% of those who perished during the Bhola cyclone could have survived if the most basic instruction for safeguarding vulnerable coastal regions—erecting earth mounds—had been followed (Dunn 1962).

In contrast to the state’s apathy, the human suffering sparked deep humanitarian consciousness and the rise of a critical united alliance across rural peasantry, urban elite and global humanitarian actors in how they responded both politically and developmentally.

Political organizations and people-led groups based in East Pakistan immediately mobilized. Although bedridden, 85-year-old Bhashani rushed to witness the level of destruction in the islands. After returning to Dhaka, he informed the press that the survivors said, “none of them came,” indicating the unresponsiveness of the state in the face of an acute humanitarian crisis (Hossain 2018, 196). In his 12 day-long visit, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the political party Awami League (AL), engaged other local AL leaders for urgent relief operations. Led by Begum Sufia Kamal and Dr Sultana Sarwat Ara Zaman, a group of women activists collected and distributed relief goods. In the deeper South, eminent economist Dr Rehman Sobhan walked from village to village, witnessing the spectacle of indistinguishable remains of human and animal flesh. Student-led protests that had begun since 1969 intensified as the motivation for political struggle was made real by the cyclone and its aftermath.

The impulse for responding to the humanitarian crisis would also be deeply entangled with the ongoing political movement. Efforts were made in unison both locally and globally, from state and non-state actors leading to a distinct form of humanitarianism—with the local at the centre of the emergency response and development interventions working synergistically. International relief operations by foreign governments provided immediate aid supporting locally based volunteer groups consisting of students, journalists, cultural activists and others who rushed to the protection and rehabilitation of survivors.

In what he described to be, “the single most extraordinary event that radically transformed the substance, texture, and trajectory of his life”, cyclone Bhola’s aftermath would redefine Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, then an accountant in his mid-thirties, and his group of friends as they began efforts to help.

1970 sketch of the location of HELP’s three base camps. (Note: The placement of the three islands is inaccurate)

Abed was working for the Pakistan Shell Oil and was stationed at Chittagong, close to the disaster site. Cornelia Rohde, an American ex-pat living in Dhaka, and her husband, Jon, a public health specialist of the Cholera Research Laboratory; lawyer Viquar Chowdhury; young doctor Richard Cash; Harvard-trained physician Lincoln Chen and his wife, Marty Chen; and Father Dick Timm, renowned biologist and priest—all made their way to Abed’s residence at Chittagong within a week of the cyclone (Rohde 2014) with hopes of reaching the most affected chars. They would be joined by many others over the next few days, including Kaiser Zaman, a young officer at Pakistan Shell Oil, who soon played the integral role of coordinating their field activities. Together they created Hatiya Emergency Lifesaving Project (HELP), named after the island that was positioned at the heart of the stricken area (Rohde 2014)[3]

Even though the volunteers had come from disparate backgrounds and had no prior experience with relief work, they learnt quickly on the go. In a matter of days, they reached Manpura, one of the most remote islands, and mobilized donor funding for working there. They carried out quick surveys to determine the support needed, constantly adjusted the relief materials to meet the locals’ changing needs, and regularly re-designed distribution mechanisms to reach the most vulnerable. With continuous learning, observation, and implementation, what started as a small volunteer-driven charity would become the prime development organization of Hatiya, all in the span of a few months.

Their collective spirit of humanitarianism connected them to each other and to the survivors of the cyclone. “We knew we had to stand beside the people affected by the cyclone immediately. The extent of the humanitarian disaster shook us all as a nation.”, expressed

Abed as he reflected on the strong sense of responsibility that he and his friends felt after witnessing dead bodies hanging from trees on the news and the sloth paced efforts from the Pakistan government (Rohde 2014). The experience would quickly set them onto a journey where life’s purpose would center around standing beside those in need.

For the first few days after the cyclone, HELP distributed immediate relief. From mid-December, they started rehabilitation efforts which lasted for the next few years. Volunteers helped villagers to rebuild houses with bamboo. They distributed seeds, hoes, and plows to the farmers for winter cultivation. Boats and nets were distributed among fishers to rehabilitate their livelihoods. The team attempted to promote and strengthen co-ops among farmers, traders, and fishers, drawing on the regionally popular Comilla Model of rural development. They also organized villagers in collective work to construct roads, canals, dams, and schools.

Returning to Manpura with cattle purchased by HELP
Photo by Rainer Kruse, courtesy of Bread for the World

Three months away from the national election, Bhola also had a profound impact on the country’s political trajectory as the military regime’s lack of political will to effectively respond to the disaster intensified the anti-Pakistan sentiment of Bengalis that had been brewing over the years. Individuals from all walks mobilized politically under a united demand of autonomy. Active participation of peasants and industrial workers facilitated by Bhashani’s presence and his support of student-led protests further strengthened the movement against the military junta. The AL’s electoral campaign also intensified its concentration on the government’s criminal neglect in safeguarding East Pakistan from the catastrophe and in the first-ever direct election in Pakistan, where all adults were allowed to vote, the League had a landslide victory, winning 160 out of 162 national assembly seats reserved for East Pakistan. The unprecedented victory eventually led to a genocidal crackdown from the Pakistan army and consequently, the war of independence.

In essence, the cyclone was not an isolated event but it had led to the tipping point, after which separation of East Pakistan from the West became inevitable. It explicitly questioned government legitimacy, destabilized the existing state-citizen contract, and solidified the need for East Pakistan’s autonomy (Pelling & Dill 2009). Arguably, the storm fortified and expanded Bengali identity and intensified feelings of otherism which were already quite strong for systematic exploitation over a span of 23 years as West Pakistan plundered resources from East Pakistan, used it as a market, and left it in extreme deprivation (Sobhan 1962; Jahan 1970).

Bhola thus sparked a new trajectory for not only Bangladesh but for individuals like Fazle Hasan Abed, Viquar Chowdhury and other HELP volunteers who experienced a life-changing transformation in the face of extreme human suffering. Drawing from the lessons learnt at Manpura and an inspiration to rebuild,  Abed would go on to create BRAC, dedicating his every waking day to the powerless. The political demand for protection from life-threatening catastrophes, the dire need for survival, and aspirations for freedom weaved into each other to craft a distinctive pathway of Bangladeshi development centered around agency and positive liberty.

[1] The Historicizing BRAC project attempts to document the emergence of BRAC within larger local and global contexts of development. The project led by Dr Shahaduz Zaman, Dr Imran Matin, and Abu Ahasan is a joint initiative by BIGD, BRAC University and BRAC.

[2] Forum was a Bangladeshi English-language monthly current affairs magazine popular for its outspoken criticism against the West Pakistani establishment, and advocacy of democracy and economic reforms in the Pakistani union. It was founded in 1969 in the then East Pakistan, by human rights activist Hameeda Hossain and economist Rehman Sobhan.

[3] Hatiya Emergency Lifesaving Project would  be renamed to Heartland Emergency Lifesaving Project when the team centralized efforts to Manpura in the last week of November, 1970