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Searching for solutions to Bangladesh's overpopulation

Does the example set by the country's Christian minority hold the key to solving the country's population crisis?

bangladesh overpopulation and population crisis

Thousands of potential passengers gather at the ferry terminal in the old part of Dhaka in this file photo. Overcrowding often leads to fatal accidents in overpopulated Bangladesh. (ucanews.com photo)

In the traffic-choked streets and markets of Dhaka, careless pedestrians are knocked off their feet by vast crowds flowing through the city like a human tsunami.  

The Bangladeshi capital is infamous for its traffic for all the wrong reasons. Overcrowding on public transport results in regular tragic accidents. Ferries load passengers several times higher than their capacity invites disaster.

With over 161 million people crammed into a total area of 147,570 square kilometers, Bangladesh is currently ranked the eighth most populous nation in the world. In contrast, Russia is about 120 times bigger than Bangladesh, but has a population of 144 million.

Although Bangladesh's economy has grown 5-6 per cent annually over the past two decades, the government's development programs have had little impact on living conditions.            


Serious problem but least attention

When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the population was slightly over 70 million. The figure has more than doubled over the next three decades, prompting urgent family planning campaigns.

The campaign, "Boy or girl two children are enough" was successful in dropping the total fertility rate (TFR) — the number of children a woman expected to have in her lifetime — from 6.4 in 1971 to 2.2 today.

Even with this reduction population growth is still a problem. About 253 people are added to the population every hour, according to a report by National Institute of Population Research and Training. 

Bangladesh has a national population policy that aimed to reduce the TFR further but it seems to have frozen and problems related to overcrowding, poverty, crime and disease have kept growing.

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An overcrowded train departs Bangladesh capital Dhaka in this file photo. With a population of over 161 million, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated places in the world. (ucanews.com photo)


A secret solution?

Bangladesh's Christian minority accounts for less than half a per cent of the population. But while the national population has ballooned, the mostly Catholic Christian population has remained stable for nearly two decades.

One generation ago, Christian families used to have 4-6 children on average. But today, Christian families tend to have two children. How have they been able to stabilize their population growth?

The Catholic Church has always been against artificial birth control and has encouraged families to observe the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle to avoid unexpected pregnancy.

But according to a controversial data set released by the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women interviewed have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning.  

Bangladeshi Christians also tend to be better educated. They have a literacy rate of 70-80 percent which is higher than the national average of 60 percent.

They are usually middle-class and keep their families small so they can maintain their lifestyle and offer their children a good education and opportunities. And it is not just Christians, indeed, it is an adage in the Bangladeshi middle class that a "small family is a happy family."

Better education seems to help lower the TFR. In Bangladesh, the primary school enrollment rate is 100 percent every year. But the school dropout rate is high, about 30 percent at primary level, and up to 60 percent at secondary level. Ultimately, only 5 percent of students graduate. 

In order to tame the population crisis, the government must improve education and make schooling free up to graduate level. They need to again prioritize overpopulation by creating a permanent council with eminent experts, demographers and social scientists to advise on demographic policy.

Despite many adversities since independence Bangladesh has become lower-middle-income country thanks to extraordinary gains in the agricultural sector, burgeoning garment industry and a steady flow of remittance from about 10 million expatriate workers. 

Now, Bangladesh is gunning for the tag of "developed country" by 2041, on the 70th anniversary of the nation's independence. But, unless the nation can aptly address overpopulation, the goal will remain a wish.  

Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist based in Dhaka.

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