For Bangladesh—one of the most densely populated nations in the world (1,252 people per square kilometre according to online publication Our World in Data, led by economist Max Roser)—overpopulation is one of the most fundamental concerns. It’s considered a critical source of all the problems we witness in Dhaka on a daily basis, from overcrowded work conditions, traffic congestion, recurring violence to abject poverty.
While this notion does seem plausible on a surface level, it isn’t entirely correct. Overpopulation is indeed an overstated issue, which is a troublesome diversion from more pressing challenges—the distribution of resources and wealth in the world and within nations, and widespread inefficient urbanisation schemes that produce overcrowding in cities. In other words, the issue with economic development in Bangladesh is not about reproduction, rather it’s mismanagement.
To mark World Population Day in 2016, The Daily Star published an article urging officials to treat overpopulation as a “priority issue,” highlighting, “uncontrolled and unmanaged population is already an existential threat to our nation.” This widespread idea comes from generations of universal obsession with the theory that “population growth inherently exceeds the earth’s resources and inflicts misery,” put forth by 18th-century reverend scholar Thomas Malthus in his essay “Principle of Population.” While many economists have contested this view, it has also been warped by policymakers to justify racism in anti-immigration policies, and legitimise anti-refugee, specifically anti-Muslim, sentiments (due to the pervasive belief that Muslims generally have more children). So we have to be careful when we casually use the term “overpopulation” to usher an image of an apocalypse.
The United Nations Population Division predicts that today’s world population will swell to 11 billion by the end of this century. One reason to be granular about these projections: in 1999, the UN Population Division estimated that the world population would decline in 30 to 50 years; 20 years later, in 2019, their predictions proved wrong, as world population has been increasing.
Regardless, many media platforms continue to misinterpret the threats of overpopulation. Analysing the UN’s findings, the Reader’s Digest recently stated: “Burgeoning world population presents many challenges to hit sustainability goals, because the more number of people, the more resources we take, the more we harm other species, and the more we waste.” But that sounds too simple, and rather linear, doesn’t it?
We humans not only cause environmental damage, but we suffer as a result of it as well. For example, health risks due to climate change and pollution have been cascading: a recent study by International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) found that miscarriage rates are rising in the coastal regions in Bangladesh due to rising sea levels and salinity. Evidently, population is a complex phenomenon, because the world we live in is complicated, composed of interdependent systems. Plus, it’s not all science; the science of human livelihood is essentially social science—politics, economics (especially human capital), migration, culture and religion, all propagate the circle of life.
From a developmental perspective, population growth is in fact desirable, given, of course, proper investment of resources. Agricultural economist Ester Boserup hypothesised population growth as the driver of economic development and productivity. And in the absence of population growth, consumption per capita must grow instead. That is precisely why nations like Japan, Singapore, South Korea today, with fertility rates lower than replacement rates—resulting in more retirees, falling income-tax revenues, which will in time ensue reduced economic growth—are offering financial incentives to women to have children.
But believe it or not, there has been significant progress regarding the previously unprecedented population growth in Bangladesh. Total fertility rates in Bangladesh (number of children born for every woman of childbearing age in a population) have in fact decreased, from 2.69 in 2005 to 2.13 in 2015, which is well below the global average of 2.49 (Our World in Data).
Lower fertility rates, however, tell half the story. Birth rates and child mortality combined with fertility rates paint a picture of the “demographic dividend”—more people of working age than children. The demographic dividend should boost the economy, but only if an increased number of working-age people are presented with job opportunities, aided by proper provisions of health, infrastructure, governance, etc. Nations like India and China, deploying resource-intensive development measures, are currently benefiting from demographic dividend, although widespread warnings are rising regarding fertility surpassing replacement rate, that would impede economic growth.
Birth rates, especially in urban areas of Bangladesh, have also dropped. According to Bangladesh Urban Health Survey 2013 (BUHS-2013), birth rate per woman in urban slums declined from 2.5 in 2006 to 2.0 in 2013, while for non-slum women it dwindled to 1.7 from 1.9 in 2006. Child mortality—share of children (born alive) who die before they are five years old—has been decreasing proportionately in Bangladesh, from 6.3 percent in 2006 to 3.4 percent in 2016. With low child mortality, birth and fertility rates, the demographic dividend in Bangladesh does reflect a favourable situation for sustainable economic growth. Yet, that opportunity isn’t being utilised to its fullest potential.
Since a rising number of young working-age people are facing a lack of job opportunity, youth unemployment rate in Bangladesh is still at a high 10.6 percent, and the share of youth as a proportion of the total youth population in the country who are neither in education, nor in employment or training (NEET) is 29.8 percent. Similarly, rising income inequality enables the misuse of the demographic dividend. The poorest five percent possessed 0.78 percent of the national income in 2010, while today, it has decreased to 0.23 percent. Fertility rates are inversely correlated with industrialisation, and while that might be welcome news for Bangladesh, it cannot be accompanied with over-consumption. By contrast, economic growth today increases environmental concerns; it’s a spider web of issues, and all brilliantly confusing. And these are only a few of the socioeconomic challenges that lurk under the spectre of “overpopulation.”
The solutions, as we know, aren’t simple either. We have to examine all aspects, economic and ideological, starting with the rhetoric of development that upholds the industrialised, European-style society as the pinnacle of human achievement, including the way we approach sustainability, in terms of consumption and population, that widens income inequality and doesn’t always mean “sustainable growth.” The population “decline fantasy” is becoming an existential threat in many developed nations today. For example, Germany is grappling with the economic implications of a shrinking, ageing population. But the point here is not to instill fear by exaggerating yet another insurmountable doom loop, but to seize the day and make the most out of the situation now.
Today, on the UN’s 30th anniversary of World Population Day, before we go back to fretting about overpopulation, we must contextualise the issue, and first, understand that age-old overpopulation narratives are misguided to a large extent, and mostly don’t apply to Bangladesh in its current state. The more we divert ourselves with the delusive threat of overpopulation, the more time we waste not addressing the real challenges.
Ramisa Rob is a master’s candidate in New York University.
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