Published on 12:00 AM, April 14, 2018

What will Bangladesh look like in 2050?

PHOTO: Mohosin.a94/Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, people have turned to astrologers, pundits and gurus in their quest to unlock the mysteries of the future. Businesses show a big appetite for a peep into the future as the existing climate becomes highly uncertain. Nevertheless, predicting the future has always been a difficult business, especially if the prediction is proved wrong. Almost immediately after the independence of Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, dismissed the country as a "perpetual economic basket case". But Bangladesh has proved Kissinger wrong. In the last 46 years, Bangladesh has undergone an amazing transformation. There has been some good progress in almost all spheres of life. Therefore, instead of making any predictions, it is appropriate to analyse all the available statistics, facts and figures and speculate how the current developments will affect our life in the next 32 years—till 2050.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in its report titled "The long view: how will the global economic order change by 2050?" predicts that Bangladesh would be the 28th largest economy by 2030, up from 31st in 2016, and has the potential to become the world's 23rd largest economy by 2050. Gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity (PPP) terms is expected to grow from USD 628 billion in 2016 to USD 1,324 billion in 2030 and USD 3,064 billion by 2050. In FY 2016-17, the country exported garment and knitwear products worth around USD 28.15 billion, and the inflow of remittance was USD 13.53 billion in 2017. Foreign exchange reserve now stands around USD 33 billion. Apparently, these look nice, although there are paradoxes difficult to reconcile.

On the one hand, Bangladesh has achieved these impressive statistics that show an outstanding national income, rising exports and impressive flow of foreign earnings. On the other hand, these statistics do not reflect the dismal state of the country in some sectors—hazardous urbanisation, overpopulation, inadequate nutrition, lack of public health, low standard of living, land scarcity, vulnerability to natural disasters, rising anti-social activities, rising unemployment, growing disparity of rural and urban income and inadequate infrastructure.

Currently, 35.7 percent of the country's population (59 million) lives in urban areas. In the 1960-70s, the entire population was 70 million and 6 percent of them lived in urban areas. It is undeniable that urbanisation is the inevitable destiny of the human civilisation. But the cities are growing in an unsustainable manner. Parks, open spaces, rivers, canals and water bodies are gradually disappearing. The rivers and waterways are gradually shrinking and drying up due to the huge depositions of silt and waste. As per a survey of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), there are three hundred and ten rivers in Bangladesh. Out of these rivers, the condition of one hundred and seventy-five is miserable, and sixty-five are almost dead. Eighty percent of the rivers lack proper depth. If the government fails to protect the rivers from pollution and land-grabbing within 2050, these will turn into canals and Bangladesh would turn into a desert.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the population of Bangladesh would reach between 230-250 million in 2050. Presently, the country is adding 2.0 million people annually to the national population and for that it is losing 1 percent of agricultural land every year. There are roughly 8.774 million hectares of cultivable land available, out of which 88 percent is cultivated. So, there is a limited scope to expand the cultivated area. Rapid growth of population in conjunction with unplanned urbanisation has generated numerous transport problems in different cities. Citizens constantly complain about the unbearable traffic jams where vehicles remain stuck for several hours. Besides, the urban infrastructure does not match the scale of the urban population. The minimum road requirement for any city is 25 percent, whereas the large cities of Bangladesh have only 6 to 7 percent of roads. A country of roughly 147,000 sq. kilometres, having a population of over 160 million, would have to cater for transport needs of 230-250 million people by 2050.

According to the study titled "Assessing the costs of climate change and adaptation in South Asia" conducted by the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh's economy is more at risk to climate change than any country. Without changes to current global behaviour, the country could lose around 2 percent of its GDP by 2050. Since two-thirds of the country is less than 15 feet above sea level, a three-foot rise in sea level would submerge almost 20 percent of the entire country, reducing cultivatable land and potentially displacing 35 million people by 2050. The report also predicted that climate change could have devastating impacts on water resources and agriculture; rice production could decline by 8 percent and wheat by 32 percent, creating a very high risk of hunger.

As per the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017, the country's infrastructure competitiveness was ranked 114 out of 138 countries. Because of weak infrastructure, the entrepreneurs have to wait long for connectivity of gas and electricity after setting up their industries. Poor infrastructure of the country also hinders the prospect of local and foreign investment too. Currently, investment is facing a pitiable situation in Bangladesh. In FY 2016-17, investment as a share of GDP was 30.5 percent, a marginal increase from 29 percent in FY 2015-16. As a result, economic growth is not getting the desired momentum and job opportunities are not being created.

According to the recent Labour Force Survey released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the industrial sector, which was a major employment generator between 2000 and 2010, employed only 0.3 million people in the last seven years till FY 2016-17. On an average, the sector created 42,857 jobs a year during the period. The survey also found that 1.4 million new faces joined the labour force between 2015-16 and 2016-17, taking the total number to 63.5 million. Finding no jobs and seeing no options in the country, a recent trend has arisen among many unemployed youths to resort to desperate means to leave the country. They are taking risky journeys (by boat to Malaysia, for example) in pursuit of fortunes.

According to a report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), some 47.6 million or 30 percent of the total population are young (10-24 years), and of them, 25 percent—numbering around 11 million—are currently inactive, i.e. they are neither in the education cycle nor involved with any economic activity. Unfortunately, unemployment is greater among the higher educated group of the youth. Worrying still is that almost 1 in 4 Bangladeshis (24.3 percent of the population) live in poverty, and 12.9 percent of the population live in extreme poverty. The menace of rising inequality, anti-social activities, corruption, etc. are also affecting our progress and hampering our development.

Now, the ultimate question is: will any of this change by 2050? There is a wide range of plausible futures, and which one happens depends to a great extent on decisions and actions taken today. Nothing is preordained.

Abu Afsarul Haider graduated from Illinois State University, USA in economics and business administration and is currently involved in international trade in Dhaka.