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Bangladesh (Cyclone Disaster)

Volume 81: debated on Thursday 20 June 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Major.]

10.1 pm

Last week we debated overseas aid when, naturally, the speeches concentrated on the desperate plight of those living in sub-saharan Africa. No part of the debate was, therefore, devoted in any substantial way to the recent cyclone disaster in Bangladesh.

That disaster has been important not only for the people of Bangladesh but for our Bangladeshi community in Britain, particularly in London and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). The recent cyclone was a reminder of the vulnerability of the people who live on the Ganges delta or the edge of the bay of Bengal, whichever way one likes to describe the area.

The people there live on one of the ultimate frontiers of the world. It is a frontier between land and water, between humanity and nature and between life and death. They live a tenuous existence. They are dependent upon the abundant water there for their transport and for much of their food, and they spend much effort trying to reclaim land from the sea.

But because they have not received sufficient support from the wealthy nations of the world for their efforts to regain land from the sea, whenever a cyclone occurs the sea reclaims the land again and death and destruction ensue.

In the long-term we must give more aid, financial and practical, to Bangladesh to try to make sure that the cyclones, which we cannot stop, do not cause the death and destruction which work on the delta would stop.

The cuts in aid to Bangladesh made by the Conservatives since 1979 are a standing disgrace. In 1979, we gave £33 million, and that was not enough. In 1984, we gave, in real terms, only £33 million. To put it another way, at today's prices, the cuts which the Conservatives have imposed on aid to Bangladesh since 1979 have deprived that country of £88 million. We are one of the richest societies the world has ever known. Bangladesh is one of the most impoverished. Yet our Government's ludicrous priorities have deprived that poor society of £88 million.

Much of the aid that has been given has been misdirected and not well spent by the British Government. Large amounts of it have been spent on tea gardens, for the benefit of the owners of those tea gardens and, possibly, for tea drinkers in the developed world. That money has certainly not benefited the people working on the tea plantations. They and their families have got nothing out of the aid.

Another substantial amount of the aid was poured into an electricity scheme in Dacca, the principal product of which was an improvement in the reliability of air conditioning in the luxurious housing in the Gulshon part of Dacca, scarcely a sensible priority for British aid, particularly when that aid was being cut.

What is necessary for the people who live in the islands of the delta is to make them more safe, to undertake massive works of civil engineering such as those being carried out now by the Dutch Government with the intention of making those islands as safe as is humanly possible and to make sure that the benefits flow, not to the rich and powerful or to people in the Bangladesh army, but to the landless people of the gulf.

The Dutch Government have displayed all the knowledge and skill that one would expect of a nation which itself has reclaimed vast tracts of land from the sea and made the country safe from its incursions. But the Dutch Government have also displayed a vast commitment to do something positive for the poorest and most vulnerable people in Bangladesh. We must try to ensure that our Government and other Governments of rich countries show a similar commitment, or in a few years we shall be debating another cyclone disaster affecting perhaps another 50,000 or 100,000 people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh needs immediate help. It needs, above all, flat-bottomed boats, helicopters, vessels for keeping clean water and radios. They are not particularly sophisticated needs. The Bangladesh Government have recently repeated their request to the whole world for flat-bottomed sea-going motor craft, as they describe them. We as a military power have an abundance of such vessels. Indeed, in 1970, as has been pointed out in recent recruitment advertisements, the Royal Marines were in action in Bangladesh after the cyclone using flat-bottomed vessels to help to rescue people and to move food and medical supplies from one island to another.

Why are we not doing it now? It would provide practical training for the marines in landing, which is something that they need to practise because of what they are there for. It would be good training for them and it would be useful work for the people of Bangladesh. We want to know tonight whether the British Government have even considered this and, if they have not, why they have not. It is not as though we do not pour military aid into Bangladesh; we do—to support the regime and to finance an army whose only possible purpose can be to police Bangladesh, because it would not last five hours against the military might of India and there is no one else to threaten Bangladesh. So, if we can give military aid consistently to sustain the undemocratic Government of Bangladesh in power, surely we ought to be able to give some immediate aid by using military means that would help to sustain the people of the Bay of Bengal in their greatest need.

Recently we have heard of new flooding, not in the ultimate reaches of the delta, but in the northern part of Bangladesh, in Sylhet, whence most Bangladeshi people in Britain originally hailed. We have also heard that the supply links in the cyclone-affected area are showing great strain and that further help is needed. So what the Bangladesh Government and people need now is more practical help and more financial help.

I am not criticising the contribution that the British Government have made to the Brussels football disaster fund; I think it was appropriate for Britain to give £250,000. But that disaster involved the death of just 38 Europeans. That works out at a British contribution of roughly £6,500 per life lost in the Brussels football disaster.

To date, the Government have given only £750,000 towards the fund for the Bangladesh cyclone disaster in which it is estimated 50,000 Bangladeshis died. That works out at just £15 per life lost in the natural disaster. The Bangladeshi community represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West, who are both present, have noted the discrepancy, more in sorrow than in anger. We must do something to right that contrast. It is a wicked contrast, and it appears to be a racist response.

We owe it not just to the people in the cyclone disaster affected area but to the Bangladeshi community in Britain to share its anxiety. It is part of our community. A caring community cares about the anxieties of everyone. Their worries about their relatives and former compatriots in Bangladesh must be ours. We must give practical help because that is how proper interest manifests itself.

Practical help must be given by the British Government because all over Britain, wherever there is a Bangladeshi community—it being a practical purposeful community—its members are clubbing together to establish funds. In my constituency and in Tower Hamlets, part of the Bangladeshi community has arranged an appeal with War on Want. Separately, the Bengali Workers Action Group has set up an appeal. It is an example of self-help that one would expect to commend itself to Conservative Members.

Those spontaneous efforts and the support that I am glad to say they are receiving from other people living in those areas is not being matched by a commitment from the Government to provide the immediate practical help or substantial financial help which is needed at the moment. We need that commitment. Beyond that, we need a much longer term commitment to ensure that we make a proper contribution in the future towards making life safe, decent and sustainable on those extremely vulnerable islands in the delta.

We should urge the two great nuclear, potentially warring, powers to take their duties seriously. In their separate ways, the United States and the Soviet Union devote thousands of millions of pounds every year to developing further their capacity to destroy each other and all of us.

The people at the Geneva talks should bear in mind, each time they talk about the possibility of doing something to reduce the threat of nuclear war, that there is a positive side to that. If they were to divert to peaceful, sensible purposes, I should not object to them competing. I am sure that the people of Bangladesh would not object to the Soviet Union and the United States competing to carry out the enormous works necessary to make those islands in the Ganges delta safe, prosperous, fertile and somewhere for people to earn a decent living. That would be a sensible objective for the world; it would be a sensible objective for those two major powers.

We need a lead from Britain because of our colonial links with Bengal, in which you, Mr. Speaker, played a prominent and honourable part. I hope, therefore, that the Government will show some initiative, some commitment, and will try to set the remainder of the developed and wealthy world doing something to make Bangladesh a better and more prosperous place.

10.15 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on securing this debate. I thank him for allowing me to make a brief intervention.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 28 May about Bangladesh, and received a reply on 17 June. I raised three issues, and in her reply she said:
"You suggested that women and children in Bangladesh who have applied to join their husbands and fathers in the UK should be allowed to enter the country immediately. As you know, in the Sub Continent, where there are immigration queues, we operate a priority category for all compassionate and exceptional cases. There is also provision within the current Immigration Rules for children to be admitted to this country in exceptional circumstances. Individuals who are the victims of this tragedy and who seek priority or exceptional treatment will of course have their cases considered quickly and sympathetically."
I should like to know what arrangements have been made to make that position widely known in Bangladesh.

Secondly, I pointed to an article in The Observer which alleged that British aid was being withheld because of reservations about the population programme within Bangladesh. I was told that meetings were taking place in the hope of resolving those difficulties, and I should like to know what progress has been made.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister said:
"you ask that the British aid programme to Bangladesh should be reviewed urgently. It is, as you point out, one of the poorest countries in the world, and this is reflected in our programme, which has recently been increasing substantially. In financial year 1983/84, expenditure on our aid programme to Bangladesh was some £27 million. In 1984/85, the figure exceeded £32 million. We expect there to be a further substantial increase this year."
I should like the Minister to tell us what that "substantial increase" will be.

Bradford city council has contributed £15,000 to the Bangladesh disaster fund. On Saturday night I attended a concert organised by the Bradford Sikh parents' association, which contributed £300 to the Bangladesh appeal and £300 to the Bradford disaster appeal. On Saturday morning I shall be attending the presentation of a cheque for £3,000 by another Bangladesh organisation in Bradford for the relief of the Bangladesh disaster.

I wholly support what my hon. Friend said about the disgraceful response of Britain to the disaster. In Bradford alone, a very substantial amount of money has been raised. We heard tonight that other Bangladesh communities and other groups in Britain are contributing generously to the disaster appeal. I very much hope that the Minister will say that Britain will make a further contribution because I rebut what the Prime Minister said in concluding her letter:
"We have thus made a total of £750,000 available for relief and rehabilitation programmes. This represents a very substantial response to this tragic event, for which President Ershad has expressed his deep gratitude.
I do not believe that he should be expressing his gratitude; he should be making urgent demands for more help from Britain. I hope very much that the Minister will indicate when that help will be forthcoming.

10.18 pm

I intervene briefly, not just as a constituency Member representing a very large number of Bengalis in Tower Hamlets, but as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh.

I strongly endorse what my hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) have said. I urge the Government to make a far more speedy and generous response to the cyclone disaster that has hit Bangladesh so recently. It is difficult for us to imagine the effect of 10 ft or 15 ft waves striking low-lying coastal areas and swamping whole islands in the Ganges delta and beyond, but we know that the effects are appalling—11,000 is the minimum figure for the number of people who have died and hundreds of thousands have lost their livelihood, their cattle and their homes.

We must consider not just what can be done now to provide immediate help—I believe that we could do very much more than the offer of £750,000 so far—but what can be done for the future. Cyclones in the bay of Bengal will not stop happening. This is the sixteenth in about 15 years. We must help the Bengali Government to plan coastal defences, irrigation and land reclamation works which would make the millions of people living in the coastal regions of Bangladesh far safer in the future.

I hope that the Minister will have something encouraging to say today, not just about the response to General Ershad's appeal for $50 million of emergency aid but about the longer-term plans that are needed to make the coastal areas of Bangladesh much safer then they now are.

10.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Renton)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the recent cyclone in Bangladesh, but I confess that I was a little surprised at the interventions of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) as I thought that it was common practice in the House for other Members wishing to speak in an Adjournment debate to tell the Minister replying to the debate of their intention and I was not told of any such intention by either Member today. As I have only a few minutes left, if I cannot answer the detailed questions raised in the debate I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will write to me or to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development so that detailed answers can be given.

I had the good fortune to visit Bangladesh in January at the invitation of the Government there. I could not fail to be impressed by that country's achievements, notably in agriculture, but also, I must admit, by the poverty of its people. Despite its encouraging performances in recent years the economy will remain fragile for the foreseeable future, with the prospects of development balanced on a knife edge which can be easily upset by a single catastrophic event.

It seemed as though such an event might have occurred in the second part of 1984 when there was a series of floods of a severity comparable to that of the floods of 1974. As I was reminded during my visit in January, natural disasters are—alas—a way of life, and the House needs no reminding of the famine that ensued more than a decade ago. In 1984, however, things were different. The Government of Bangladesh reacted quickly, especially in buying and distributing grain, and tragedy was averted. The ability of the Government of Bangladesh to respond to a crisis and the resilience of its people was to be tested again all too soon in the disaster that we are discussing today.

I confess that I was surprised at the comment of the hon. Member for Bradford, West — if the hon. Gentle man will listen he will hear my answer to what he said—that the British Government's response was disgraceful. I wholly disagree with that and I have heard no such comment from any member of the Bangladesh Government or the high commission in London. I think that the hon. Gentleman may wish to think twice about that remark and to withdraw it.

After the cyclone struck, an immediate response was required and an immediate response was made. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent a message of sympathy and support to President Ershad and £50,000 was made available immediately to the Government of Bangladesh relief fund. That was quickly followed on 31 May by further announcements by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. First, a pledge was announced of £200,000 for immediate disaster relief, the bulk of which was to be channelled through British voluntary agencies active in the area. Secondly, there was a pledge of £500,000 for long-term rehabilitation—again to be channelled through British non-governmental organisations. Those measures have been warmly welcomed by the Bangladesh high commissioner.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) asked particularly about the provision of landing craft or water craft. We considered whether there were any suitably equipped Royal Navy vessels in the area which could have provided immediate assistance, but there were none. We have said that we will make flat-bottomed boats being used in another United Kingdom-financed project to the west of the cyclone area available if required, but we must be aware of duplicating what other donors are doing. We had been asked to provide outboard motors, but we understand from the Bangladesh high commission in London that that requirement is now being met by the Canadian Government.

The hon. Gentleman talked of matching commitment. I do not follow what he meant. Our aid programme to Bangladesh is large—it was £32 million in 1984–85 and is increasing. The quality of our aid is also important. All of our assistance to Bangladesh is on grant terms and we are able to meet up to 50 per cent. of local costs. We do not have detailed information, but our impression is that our response compares very favourably with that of other major donors. We understand that the United States has given $0·6 million, that Canada has given $0·2 million and that the Germans have also made a contribution. I do not understand what point the hon. Gentleman wishes to develop.

I am suggesting that, in terms of emergency aid, it would be reasonable for the Government to match the voluntary efforts of the Bangladesh community in Britain.

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that we have gone out of our way to encourage the development of voluntary aid through groups such as Oxfam. That is especially the case with the disaster in Ethiopia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. What the Government can do must be within the context of the overall aid programme. The choice of words of the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for Bradford, West was unfortuate and unfair in terms of the quick reaction and the money that had been dedicated.

We understand that a group of the main British voluntary agencies launched an appeal on 31 May which has already raised substantial sums of money, much of which will be used to complement schemes for which we shall provide funds. The agencies have warmly welcomed our response and concur strongly with our view that the emphasis must now be on rehabilitation.

The Government of Bangladesh value our programme because of its quantity and its quality. They have shown themselves increasingly willing to get to grips with longer-term problems such as landlessness and the relentless population pressure. The dangers of the growing population were made clear to me in January. Both of those factors explain why the islands that were directly affected by the cyclone were so heavily populated when the dangers must have been obvious. We shall do what we can to support the efforts of the voluntary organisations.

With several other donors, including the World Bank, we are planning to participate in a large population and health care project in support of a major Government programme. Several of the projects in which we are involved, such as rural development and fisheries, have as one of their key objectives the provision of more income—earning opportunities for the landless. As part of our response to last year's flooding, we agreed to make £4 million available for the purchase of British wheat to be used in support of vulnerable group feeding programmes.

Although I disagreed with the tenor of some of his remarks, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic. If, in the time available, I have not answered the questions that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have asked, I hope that they will write with details to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development or to me. Bangladesh will remain dependent on substantial inflows of aid for a long time to support its economic development. I am sure that we all agree that a country that is so susceptible to natural disaster will also rely on donors responding quickly to crises such as the recent cyclone.

Our record is good. The Government of Bangladesh share that belief. I assure the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that the Government of Bangladesh can rely on our continued support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.