Why do we plan for development? We plan for the welfare of the people. Population is the basic unit of society. Therefore, one has to know about the demographics of a country to formulate a comprehensive development plan. The characteristics of the past population influences the present and the characteristics of the present influences the future. There is a chain effect in the process. Population and development issues cannot be treated in isolation. Population must be in the centre of all development plans. Population is not only a matter of counting numbers, it is a development paradigm too.
The population dynamics of Bangladesh shows a much brighter picture than that of the post-independence period. For instance, the fertility level has gone down so much that Bangladesh is now considered as low fertility country (according to BDHS 2011, TFR 2.3); whereas right after the independence this nation was regarded as one of the highest fertility nations of the world having a TFR of 6.3 in 1975.
People are now living up to 70 years of age. When you live up to 70 years of age, then you have the opportunity to contribute to the economy with your full potential.
Population of Bangladesh is generally considered as a young population. However, currently, we have a situation where the proportion of young people has gone down to a level that, in the near future, we might no more be called as a young population. We have a large proportion of economically active population now (i.e., more than 60% of the total population belong to the 15 to 59 years of age group). That means, we have more producers than consumers. This situation is called “demographic dividend,” which has opened a window of opportunity for Bangladesh.
This “demographic dividend” is a result of declining fertility and declining mortality. Now the question is that are these economically active people producing? They are in the producers group, but not all of them are really producing, because not all of them have jobs. Whoever have jobs, many of them are not trained, they are not fully developed into human resources; and half of them are women, who are still not literate, not empowered. They work so hard at home as house-keepers and other economic activities, but these activities do not pay off in terms of wage earning. So, it is not employment as it does not add to the GDP and not counted in the economic growth. We need to train women and place them into the job market so that they earn their wages and be their own master. This is one thing that we are lacking right now.
The harsh reality is that the “demographic dividend” lasts only for small period of time, say for about 30-35 years, after which the window of opportunities closes automatically as the population structure shuts it down. As we see through the projection that around 2047-48, there will be more elderly people than the younger ones. What do you do then? You do not have enough producers anymore; you only have a huge number of consumers. And these elderly consumers are burdens in two ways: (i) they become inactive economically; and (ii) they become vulnerable to expensive health complications.
If we do not plan right now, considering this going to be happened during late 40s of this century, we will be in big trouble. As we see today, the developed nations with strong economy are already in huge economic crisis to handle their elderly situation, especially in terms of health services. So, how do you tap the labour force of the young population and get the best benefit out of it? That is also an important issue with this development and population interaction. If the “demographic dividend” is not converted into “economic dividend” through proper planning, this dividend will turn into a huge burden for us.
Look at the agricultural sector for instance, simply due to the shear size of the population increment, we loose our land. Every year we are adding 1.8 to 2 million people into the national population. Just by adding that 2 million people into the population, we are losing 1% of agricultural land every year. Small land size is one of the biggest constraints for development in Bangladesh. With the limited amount of space, if we lose 1% per annum, we do not have land to cultivate (let alone the food security and food self-sufficiency).
Now, comes the child-marriage issue. It has many negative consequences: (i) it kills all opportunities for the women to develop. It stops schooling, stops work, stops any future a woman might have thought of; (ii) the legal aged marriage is at 18, but according to the BDHS data we see that the median aged marriage is at 15.6. 68% of the women are getting married at the age below 18, and 35% of the women are becoming mothers by the age of 19. If we can prevent child-marriage, we will also be able to prevent other population problems.
Although we say that we have progressed a lot in terms of maternal death, our present MMR is 1.94, which is one of the highest in the world. You just simply cannot allow that to happen. Same is the case with child and infant mortality. And all of these are happening mostly due to child-marriage.
Another issue regarding population is the family-planning and reproductive-health care services. Among many other things, the adolescent reproductive health care is the most neglected area. These adolescents need special attention because of the very age group they are in -- neither child nor adult. They are considered to be in no man's land. Nobody cares to listen to them.
There is no adolescents' centre available, where they can go, talk freely in a friendly manner. This segment of population comprises about one fourth (23%) of the total national population. When adolescents are getting married, they need family planning commodities for birth protection. But they have neither social nor economic access.
BDHS 2011 showed that 12% of women do not want children anymore, whereas they do not get commodities for protection. That is the extent of unmet need for family planning we have. If we fill the gap by taking this unmet need away today, our total fertility rate goes down to 1.6 per woman. TFR of 1.6 means a rate that is required for the rapid arrest of the built in population momentum.
TFR is going down, but the proportion of women at reproductive age group is increasing. As a result, they are contributing more to the TFR than before. Whereas, we did not have a significant increase in the girls' age at marriage during last twelve years. During the same period, we have increased the age at marriage only by one year. We need to identify the barriers and remove them.
Morbidity hurts more than mortality. Because, when you are dead, you are gone or exited from the population. But, if you are living sick, lying on the bed, you need medical attention, food, shelter; you are not contributing as a producer rather consuming on others. That means, resources are being spent on you but the subsidiaries are not there. Morbidity rate is high in our country.
We are a nation blessed with so many policies but they are not effectively implanted. As if we do not stand for what we say in most of the policies. For instance, in the population policy, many sectoral ministries are involved in the approach, but nobody takes it seriously except the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
The population policy of 2004 never had an action plan to implement it. Now it has been updated in 2009, but we do not know when the action plan will be designed for implementation. So, there are some gaps and some lapses in the process. We should address them immediately.
A very pertinent question arises at the early stage of the preparation of Seventh Five Year Plan of Bangladesh that “Are our development plans poor inclusive?” Not all of the activities are poor inclusive development. Most of the works give the benefit to the rich, not the poor in the long run.
If we mean to make our plan poor inclusive, we need to address the sustained economic growth with zero poverty very seriously. Not only that, but also the existing inequality within it. Only then, the fruits of the demographic dividend could be brought home.
The writer is a renowned population expert and, currently, Vice-Chancellor ofBegum Rokeya University, Rangpur.
Transcribed by Amena Alam, Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star