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Population crisis needs national plan

Overcrowding contributes to a host of social problems

  • The Third Eye, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • July 23, 2012
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Last week the results of the fifth Population and Housing Census conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS)were announced.

The country’s population as of 2011 stands at about 152 million.

Bangladesh has a growth rate of 1.37 percent annually and a population density of 1,015 people per square kilometer – in a country of just 147,570 square kilometers – making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

Preliminary results published by BBS in March showed a population of just over 140 million, which was roundly criticized by analysts who argued that the figure was too low.

In response, the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), an independent body, was assigned to review the census data and found that about four percent of the population had not been included in the count.

Such irregularities in official data are nothing new. It’s a strategy that no doubt works well in telling authorities what they want to hear and hiding institutional inefficiencies and keeping ordinary people in the dark on issues of national importance.

Moreover, there are at least 10 million expatriate workers not included in the census, as they were overseas during the data collection.

Even international agencies have come up with differing figures on Bangladesh’s population, with the UN Population Fund having to revise their count of 164.4 million in 2010 to 149 million the following year.

Such inaccuracies may seem forgivable in light of the difficulties of gathering such data, but maintaining reliable information on the population is vital for a country that must import millions of tons of food each year to feed its citizens.

Population growth in the country resembles nothing less than a galloping racehorse. In 1971 after independence from Pakistan, the population was estimated to be 70 million. Two decades later it had almost doubled.

The country ranks as the eighth most populated country in the world, but a stroll down traffic-choked streets and markets might well convince you that it merits a much higher ranking.

To put this in the necessary perspective, Russia is a country 120 times larger than Bangladesh but with a population of just over 140 million.

A quick glance at social science textbooks in the country will demonstrate that researchers characterize the issue of population growth as perhaps the country’s most pressing problem, but the issue does not seem to register as urgently with the government in the crafting of national policy.

Overpopulation has had disastrous effects on the country and contributes to increased poverty, illiteracy, food security, unemployment and corruption.

In the early 1990s, democracy was restored to the country but none of the successive governments made any notable efforts to control a rising population – something that had been tipped as the focus of all national planning.

In developed countries the population is a valuable resource, but in Bangladesh at least half is better described as a burden through a lack of education and job skills.

While some progress has been made in the areas of education and healthcare, little has been done to tackle the issue of overpopulation despite national campaigns to encourage fewer children for families.

The lack of a national strategy, particularly in rural areas where access to birth control and family planning services are minimal, is aggravating the problem despite some efforts by NGOs in the last four decades to conduct education programs.

But programs only have a minimal impact when mindsets about having children remain the same.

For example, a relative of mine often boasts about the fact that he has seven children, which work the family farm and remove the need for hiring additional workers.

Others explain their large families by saying that many of the children were the result of unplanned pregnancy. The result is that those who are least capable of affording to raise children have the largest families.

A more systematic approach to the issue of family planning is needed, one that takes into consideration not merely the needs of individual families but that sees the long-term needs of a nation struggling with limited resources and limited space to meet the needs of a growing population.

The Third Eye is the pseudonym of a journalist and analyst based in Dhaka
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