According to the adjusted 2001 census figures, Bangladesh’s population stood at 129.3m (an initial count put it at 124.4m; an adjustment for the standard rate of undercounting then boosted the figure). Those familiar with the census mechanics tell of a muddle, marked by “multiple technical problems” starting with some official’s decision to procure inferior paper, which fouled up the optical-scanning process…which in turn undermined the quality of the data set. This time, donors are handling the pens and paper—the EU is chipping in over €10m ($14m), or more than a third of the total cost of the census.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ population clock claims that, at midnight today, that number had risen to 150,220,172. But many think the clock is running too slow. Bangladesh’s statisticians have almost certainly underestimated the natural population growth since the last census, according to the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research. Researchers at the Dhaka-based international research institution—it has been monitoring the country’s population for 40 years and has the longest-running and most comprehensive demographic data in the developing world—put Bangladesh’s current population at 162m.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) agrees, almost to the letter: it put the population at 164.4m in 2010. It is the UN body’s estimate that has enraged Bangladesh’s politicians, some of whom care about these things. A.M.A. Muhith, the finance minister, has called the UN estimate—which suggests that the government may have 14m citizens it would appear to prefer not to have—“condemnable” and “unauthorised meddling”.
The difference reflects UNFPA’s pessimistic assumptions about the speed of fertility decline. Helped along by one of the world’s most expensive fertility-reduction programmes, Bangladesh has seen a dramatic fall in its total fertility rate. In the late 1970s, women had seven children on average; by the early 1990s just over three. The fertility decline settled at a plateau in 1993-2002, but has resumed sliding since. It has not, however, made up for that lost time. In 2010, the year Bangladesh’ s National Population Policy aimed to achieve the replacement level fertility of 2.2, it still hovered at 2.5.
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Arithmetically speaking, it is a battle over the size of a denominator—many indicators of economic development are expressed as a proportion of the total population. Politically, a small population is a nice thing to have. This is because the smaller it is, the more impressive Bangladesh’s progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will look (and the warm feeling would be mutual). This refers to progress made towards the goal of halving the proportions of poor and hungry people. So the size of the population matters, either directly or indirectly, for it serves as a denominator in the vast majority of indicators by which progress on the goals in the MDG framework are measured.
A good place to start an overview of the Bangladeshi population might be to compare it with the Pakistani population. Until 1971, after all, Bangladesh was known as "East Pakistan", the eastern wing of the state that was supposed to include the Muslim-majority territories of the former Raj. The underrepresentation of East Pakistan in the country's affairs led to a regionalist movement that became a separatist movement that led to a Bangladeshi declaration of independence and eventually liberation by India. Of the two wings, East Pakistan was the most populous; estimates gave East Pakistan had 70 million versus 60 million in West Pakistan. In the early 1970s, after the half-million killed in the 1970 Dhola cyclone and the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of civilians killed by Pakistani soldiers in the 1971 war, Bangladesh was seen as having far worse development prospects than rump Pakistan, called a "basket case" by Henry Kissinger, the sort of "hopeless" land that Paul Ehrlich would have callously abandoned to famine and mass death.
Instead, things have reversed. Even the highest estimates for Bangladesh's population place it behind the population of Pakistan, and the difference will continue to grow as Bangladeshi fertility rates remain below the comparable Pakistani figures. Bangladesh is catching up on the Human Development Index, too; indeed, Bangladesh has seen some of the highest rates of HDI growth in the world. While still lagging behind Pakistan on metrics like literacy and life expectancy, Bangladesh is catching up quickly. The Bangladeshi economy, too, has done reasonably well since the 1990s, driven by a successful garment industry and famously the home country of microcredit institutions. Tahmina Anam is right to conclude that more things are going right in Bangladesh than wrong.
Regarding Bangladeshi demographics, Mohammad Shahidul Islam at Roubini.com suggests that Bangladesh is set to enjoy the economic dividends of its advanced demographic transition.
Based on the stylized facts of the demographic transition model, one can see the dynamics of Bangladesh’s population transition. According to the United Nation’s Population Prospects 2008 database, total fertility rates (TFR) in Bangladesh have declined, from 6.85 children per woman in 1971-75 to 2.36 in 2005-2010. The TFR is projected to approach a replacement level (2.1) in the period 2015-2020. The population growth rate declined from 2.67 per cent in 1970-75 to 1.42 per cent in 2005-2010. The crude birth rate and the crude death rates in the country are now 21.6 and 6.3 (per 1000 population) respectively.
Based on these statistics, Bangladesh is now at the beginning of Stage III of population transition. In other words, it has entered the stabilization era of population transition. Bangladesh’s population transition has been following nearly the same pattern that Europe and East Asia experienced.
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Bangladesh’s dependency ratio has declined, from 92 in 1975 to 53 in 2010. A nation’s demographic window generally opens when the dependency ratio (non-working to working age population) goes below 50. In South Asia, Bangladesh and India are projected to enjoy a large demographic window (2015-2050) thanks to a sharp decline in their dependency ratios.
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Until the 1980s, Bangladesh’s per capita income growth was very low owing to a high dependency ratio. With a high birth rate, low death rate and subsistence economy the country’s economic development till the 1980s resulted in poor per capita income growth. However, the scenario has changed since the late 1980s and early 1990s when Bangladesh witnessed a sharp decline in population growth and a steady increase in GDP growth with low volatility.
Of special note, Bangladeshi sex ratios are better than elsewhere in the region.
Moreover, Bangladesh has done much better than many of its neighbours, including India, in terms of gender-related demographic statistics. This development will provide additional impetus to Bangladesh’s demography. With an improved sex ratio, the females’ share is approaching half of the total working age population in Bangladesh. Studies show that the actual growth rates of South Asia and other lagging regions were at least one percentage point lower than their potential growth due to gender imbalances.
I've come across anecdotal press reports of Bangladeshi women being valued as potential marriage partners in Indian states like Punjab lacking in marriageable women. Interesting possibilities lie here.
This connects to the phenomenon of Bangladeshi emigration. It is large, in absolute numbers and relative to receiving areas, as Banyan notes. There is an overseas Bangladeshi diaspora numbering somewhere in the area of four million people, mostly concentrated in Middle Eastern migrant-receiving countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as to Malaysia, but including large communities in the United Kingdom and the United States, even the nucleus of a Bangladeshi-Canadian community here in Canadian Toronto. Much larger in absolute size is the scale of Bangladeshi immigration into India, most controversially into the northeastern state of Assam where the presence of Bangladeshis--Bengalis, generally--has become a political issue frequently erupting into violence, but also into culturally kin West Bengal and elsewhere in India.
This emigration, frankly, is inevitable. Before Bangladesh was East Pakistan it was East Bengal, a region with a Muslim majority separated from the region and British imperial province of Bengal certainly not because it was a self-contained unit with economically viable frontiers (as noted by Nafis Ahmad in a 1950 paper for Economic Geography) but because it had a Muslim majority population. Under British rule, East Pakistan was a producer of commodities, raw materials to be transferred to the Bengali industrial centre and port in Calcutta. The inter-state frontier led to East Pakistan being cut off from its natural hub, now in the Indian state of West Bengal. While Bangladesh has since developed its capital Dhaka as a new industrial centre and port in Chittagong, it still lags behind West Bengal economically. Critically, despite the state frontiers separating Bangladesh from neighbouring Indian states Bengal remains a functional human region in a way that--say--the Punjab divided between India and Pakistan does not, with a shared language and culture and a famously porous border and communal relations generally less fraught. In Partition, for instance, Bengal lacked the same scale of communal violence as in Punjab, while the dwindling of the Hindu proportion of the Bangladeshi population from 40% a century ago to a bit more than 9% now has as much to do with lower Bangladeshi Hindu birth rates as it does with the forced migration and/or massacre of Hindus. (A highly disproportionate share of the murdered and displaced civilians in 1971 were Hindus, targeted by Pakistanis--not their fellow Bengalis--for persecution by virtue of their religion.)
All things considered, it would be more surprising if Bangladeshis didn't Emigrate, to India and elsewhere. Whatever notable degree of economic development Bangladesh has achieved, it is ultimately still dependent on the wider world for its future, and Bangladeshi migrants are a critically important resource for their homeland, the mostly unskilled and semi-skilled labourers sending back huge volumes of remittances to their homeland despite their vulnerability--as now in Libya--to events in their adopted homelands.