Thursday, April 16, 2009

Population Challenge Facing Bangladesh


IT IS entirely possible that the perilous situation that awaits Bangladesh with its population growth isn’t getting the kind of consideration that it so deserves. Or it may be that people are very indifferent about the whole matter. But ignoring or avoiding the problem itself would not somehow make it go away, and would only make the situation worse for this poverty stricken country, and the world.

Bangladesh is the 7th largest country in the world in population where 150 million people are virtually elbowing each other in a land that is 134,000 sq km in area with a population density of more than 1100 people per sq km. Overpopulated! Well, there are only a few city-like states - like Singapore - that would top this kind of population density. Excluding those states, Bangladesh would make it to the top of the list in population density. What makes the situation even more horrifying for Bangladesh is that the country is poised to lose a good part of its territory to the rise in sea levels associated with global warming, while its very population increases at an unsustainable rate.

During independence in 1971, the population of Bangladesh was about 75 million. After 37 years, its population is believed to have more than doubled. The current estimate of population growth in the country varies from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent a year depending on whose assessment one pays attention to. For good measure, if one takes a middle ground and considers a growth rate of say 1.75 per cent a year, it would mean that Bangladesh population will double in the next 40 years, while at the lowest rate the doubling time would be 47 years. How serious a problem would the country face when its population doubles? To get an idea, one might imagine the current U.S. population of 300 million living within the confines of the state of Wisconsin, which is close to the size of Bangladesh.

In spite of such an ominous scenario, idealists may be quick to point out that Bangladesh is making improvements in education and healthcare, and most importantly has achieved a respectable economic growth rate of about 5 per cent a year in recent decades. Though true, such progress has had a very little effect on the overall poverty level in the country. Studies reveal that in real terms the poverty level in Bangladesh has not come down but gone up. What would then account for such an anomaly? In addition to the massive corruption in the country, which benefited the few and also slowed potential economic growth, the main reason for this incongruity might be the rapid growth of the country’s underprivileged population, whose unemployment rate remains as one might expect extremely high.

The population growth rate among the educated people in Bangladesh has come down by a considerable extent. But its growth rate among the underprivileged, who continue to constitute a big majority, is double the rate of the educated group. Since the poor people have no steady income (some practically live hand to mouth), they customarily want more children as security and support in old age. They are also apt to get married early and produce children that they can’t educate or even support. However, the great irony is that the children born in such a situation tend to breed more of the same year after year. This is precisely what’s happening in Bangladesh right now.

So, the reduction in population growth among educated people in the country is being more than compensated by the increase among the underprivileged. The other stark reality is that such a growth in population will not only put the future of Bangladesh at serious danger, it will indubitably have a profound impact on the rest of the world as well.

Effect of climate change
Climate change is already a reality of life. As a result of this change, world temperature is going up, glaciers in the North and South Poles are melting, sea water level is rising, drought conditions are spreading, freshwater supply is declining, and cyclones or hurricanes are escalating.

In Bangladesh, climate change is threatening the very existence of people’s lives and livelihoods. Experts believe that the effects would be very severe here since Bangladesh’s population growth is putting ever more pressure on its limited natural resources. With the depletion of its vital resources, such as fresh water, forests, and farmland that are considered most essential for the country’s sustainability, population growth is undeniably contributing to serious environmental degradation in Bangladesh. Additionally, the country is currently experiencing a new phenomenon. Its coastal areas are reportedly noticing an unusual rise in the mosquito population that is bigger in size and more resilient, and is spreading all kinds of diseases including malaria and dengue with devastating effect.

Agricultural production, the use of land, and water distribution are among the biggest challenges that confront Bangladesh. Most of the country’s land mass is close to the sea level, and about 40 per cent of its land is flooded under normal circumstances during the monsoon season. This situation is continually worsening since India’s diversion of water in the dry season is causing the country’s river system to fill up with silt and sediment, making the river system less able to handle the water load in the monsoon. Furthermore, when small shifts in the weather pattern intensify flooding in Bangladesh - as is happening more frequently in recent times - many people die and millions are left homeless. With the rise of the sea level because of global warming, the destructive effect of flooding is sure to increase. When coastal areas begin to submerge under water, people will have no alternative but to migrate to higher land.

Indeed the process of migration from the shore area may have already begun, though in a subtle way, and will intensify as the situation worsens. But where will the people go? There’s an enormous pressure on the capital city, Dhaka. And that pressure, by the way, is not abating as more and more people keep cramming into this over-crowded city every day. Moreover, living conditions in Dhaka are continually deteriorating because of lack of such basic amenities - like electricity and clean water. Dreadful circumstances are also mounting in other cities of the country. Above all the invasion of government land is becoming common, even in rural areas. So the other feasible alternative might be to migrate to the neighboring country. In fact, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts exactly such a scenario. As the sea level rises, the panel estimates another 35 million people from Bangladesh will cross over into India by 2050.

One of the very critical effects of climate change is likely to be its impact on the world’s food supply. Scientists are predicting that world harvests will drop 20 to 40 per cent by the end of this century as a result of global warming. So the most crucial issue is: if in the current environment Bangladesh can’t meet its food requirements, how will it tackle the anticipated massive food shortage that would be created by its increases of population and the loss of farmland when world food supply goes down further?

Some experts have advocated the concept of Compact Townships in Bangladesh to avoid the concentration of population in major cities and to limit the pressure on farmland. Others believe that the country is growing by about 20 square kilometers annually, which should bring relief. But dismissing the idea of land growth, Atiq Rahman, a member of U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said “The rate at which sediment is deposited and new land is created is much slower than the rate at which climate change and sea level rises are taking place”.

Population growth is thus a tremendous challenge for Bangladesh that must be addressed on a high priority basis. Without a practical solution to population growth, especially among the underprivileged, the country couldn’t be expected to achieve a meaningful economic expansion to avert future large scale poverty, thereby leading to an anarchical situation. In fact, a number of notable indications, such as the constant rioting in university campuses, unrelenting deadly confrontations in the political arena, the rise of fundamentalism, terrorist activities, and serious economic distress followed by general lawlessness and social unrest, do point to such eventuality.
The recent unprecedented uprisings among the country’s border guards in February 2009 in which nearly 60 senior army commanding officers were mercilessly murdered, and the new discovery of huge arms cache in a religious school compound in the secluded coastal area offer the most glaring examples of how the circumstances in Bangladesh are changing for the worse. Social scientists believe such episodes will escalate as the situation worsens.

Meeting the challenge
To meet the challenge of population growth, Bangladesh could draw important lessons from the experience of other countries. For example, China has taken the most drastic measure – restricting the number of children per family to just one. China is in a unique position to adopt such a policy. Even though it has embraced a capitalist economy, its Communist Party continues to exercise total control over government policy. In pursuing its population policy, China has instituted a social security system for the elderly.

In a recent meeting of the Bangladesh Population Council, the local experts have openly discussed and stressed the need for adopting a China like population policy in order to contain the population explosion. But for a traditional society - like Bangladesh - where neither a viable social security system nor a strong authoritarian government exists, the Chinese policy of one child per family would be hard to implement. The biggest hurdle the country would invariably face is the wrath of religious fundamentalists. Less educated people are easily manipulated or swayed in the name of religion. The argument that children are the gift of God and are cared for by God is still being embraced by too many underprivileged people. It will not be easy to change these attitudes.

India at one time tried to restrict its population growth through legislation, but had to abandon such a policy under tremendous social and religious pressures in the country.

Earlier, Bangladesh pushed family planning very vigorously, but then its last elected government became ambivalent about it. This was most probably because the government had to give way to the pressures of its coalition partner, a religious party. The situation in Bangladesh may have changed now with the inauguration of a newly elected government this year, though its planned action on population still remains to be seen.

Bangladesh’s population situation is surely worsening day by day. In order to avoid dire consequences, the country ought to consider vigorously enforcing its law of minimum age for marriage. At the same time it must discourage people from getting married without a steady income, mandate prospective brides and grooms to attend a prescribed class on family planning before marriage, and also institute some kind of social security system for the elderly.

These themes must be brought to the uneducated rural people in innovative ways. For example, a simple video presentation on sexuality, health, hygiene, child bearing, family planning, and birth control with a question and answer session might be useful for them. Also, considering the overall poverty level of the people, special emphasis should be given to inexpensive and relatively safe methods of birth control - like the timely withdrawal method (medically described as coitus interruptus). This form of birth control might even be more acceptable to religious leaders. Besides, traditional birth control pills are not free from side-effect, which is an impediment.

Educating women as well as men on the implications of their action or inaction on family matters would clearly be the best way to achieve not only the desired goal of population stabilization, but also basic healthcare of the child that Bangladesh so desperately needs and is trying to achieve. Let’s hope the government realizes the significance of population problem and quickly moves to take action on it.

Obligatory help
Achieving population stabilization in Bangladesh through mass education, however, would be an overwhelming challenge for the government to meet. Obviously, the country lacks the necessary resources for such a massive undertaking. The international community has enormous obligations to help Bangladesh to achieve stability. For one, the country is an innocent victim of the effect of global warming that is mainly caused by carbon emissions in the industrialized nations. And second, in addition to the huge humanitarian concern, if Bangladesh were to turn into a failed state as a result of its population explosion it would impact the rest of the world in a very negative way. Somalia would be a good example of the effect of a failed state.

There are thousands of non-governmental organizations currently operating in Bangladesh. These NGOs are no doubt influencing the lives of many poor people. The notion of family planning for the poor is a great cause in that it would bring stability to an unstable situation and help improve the depressed condition sooner. By taking a unified stand on educating the public on family planning, the NGOs could, therefore, contribute even more in advancing the cause of humanity in Bangladesh. Expatriate Bangladeshis are also morally obligated to come forward in innovative ways to help meet this great challenge. #

Mahfuz R. Chowdhury is a Professor of Economics at CW Post Campus of Long Island University, New York, and has published numerous articles on issues concerning Bangladesh and developing economies. He could reached at: