A tribute to Jamilur Reza Choudhury
Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury, fondly called JRC by his friends, was a soft spoken but a strongly passionate man. As a distinguished civil engineer, his passion was to build a modern Bangladesh. All his expertise, energy and work were dedicated to this single purpose. There was hardly any major or mega civil construction project in the country with which he was not associated. He had the highest professional credentials as a civil and structural engineer. As part of his doctoral thesis he devised a simplified method for analysis of shear walls in tall buildings which has been used all over the world. It is even included in text books on the subject in different countries.
If he wanted, JRC could have lived and worked in the west and acquired fame like Dr FR Khan. Instead, he devoted himself to teaching and working in his own country. But unlike many other academics, he went far beyond the confines of his classroom, ventured into the real world of development—not only the physical structures made of steel and concrete, but more importantly the development of human resources, the young people of Bangladesh. So after Buet, he spent the rest of his life building private universities, i.e. the Brac University and the University of Asia Pacific.
He was undoubtedly a great human being. Already the human qualities of JRC, his humility, warmth of his personality, his friendly unassuming behaviour, have been highlighted. Having known him and his family since our high school days, I have seen how modest and unostentatious was his living. I have frequented his family bungalow on Elephant Road which contained musty old furniture and shelves filled with books—reflecting the lifestyle of a typical emerging middle class family with academic inclinations. I believe only recently the property has been given to a developer.
What struck me most was Jamil's highly strategic vision for future development of a country that won its independence after a devastating Liberation War. It was a poor country, much derided globally as a basket case. The low lying delta that merged with the Bay of Bengal was vulnerable to frequent cyclones and storm surges. Probably half a million people had perished in the cyclone of November, 1970. The immediate task was to prevent such colossal loss of lives in future. JRC envisioned a ring of multipurpose cyclone shelters all along the 750 km of coastline of the bay. It was almost an impossible mission. JRC led a team of experts that planned and implemented a highly successful multi-purpose cyclone shelter programme overseeing construction of 2,500 multi-storied buildings. Various evaluation studies including a very recent one by Kyoto university estimated that these shelters have saved probably hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years.
JRC was also trail-blazer with introduction of new information based communication technologies, which provide the platform for today's "Digital Bangladesh'". He was the director of the newly set up Computer Centre in Buet during the period 1982-92. It later on became the Institute of Information and Communications Technology, a real powerhouse of training, churning out the first generation of computer engineers in Bangladesh. Its graduates were at the forefront of an ICT based industry and trade, both at home and abroad.
I was at that time involved with research on regional development policies at the Asian and Pacific Development Centre in Kuala Lumpur. In 1986 Jamil assisted me in introducing a research project on development of new IT applications—now facilitated by emergence of desktop personal computers—for decentralised rural development. We had scholars like Nitin Patel and Mohan Kaul from India, Samaranayake from Sri Lanka who prepared policy recommendations for using PCs to utilise rural data bases for local and regional development. Jamil, in spite of his quiet unobtrusive ways became a veritable whirlwind, the primary motivating force, the change-maker in the IT sector of our country. He ultimately ended up as the chairman of the task force for developing export of software and data processing as well as convenor of the committee which formulated the national IT policy.
His involvement in different sectors of our national development seemed boundless. He was a bee-hive of energy. A Prometheus unbound. His capacity to motivate and energise others, especially the young, was amazing. His personal and professional integrity in a country where corruption is rife, was unparalleled. I was impressed by his unique ability to coordinate, to harmonise, to synthesise even highly divergent views. This is also exemplified by his capacity to work simultaneously with both government and non-government organisations like Brac, Grameen Bank, as well as international development institutions. He did this without ever compromising his professional integrity.
Right now we face the unprecedented crisis of Covid-19 and an epic challenge for reconstruction of a devastated economy. We very much needed JRC and his expertise, his bold vision and capacity to coordinate and inspire others to work as a team, in accomplishing this task.
We often complain that Bangladesh does not have a person who could become a role model for our youth. I would like to assert that JRC was a patriot and a great role model for our new generation of young professionals. I certainly grieve at his death. At the same time, I also celebrate, like so many of his friends, colleagues and admirers, the great accomplishments of his life. His name will be emblazoned in our development history as one of the great builders of Bangladesh.
Khalid Shams is a former civil servant and a friend of JRC.