In the 1980s, Bangladesh faced no greater problem than population growth. Census data compiled in 1901 indicated a total of 29 million in East Bengal, the region that became East Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh. By 1951, four years after partition from India, East Pakistan had 44 million people, a number that grew rapidly up to the first postindependence census, taken in 1974, which reported the national population at 71 million. The 1981 census reported a population of 87 million and a 2.3 percent annual growth rate. Thus, in just 80 years, the population had tripled. In July 1988 the population, by then the eighth largest in the world, stood at 109,963,551, and the average annual growth rate was 2.6 percent. According to official estimates, Bangladesh was expected to reach a population of more than 140 million by the year 2000.
Bangladesh's population density provided further evidence of the problems the nation faced. In 1901 an average of 216 persons inhabited one square kilometer. By 1951 that number had increased to 312 per square kilometer and, in 1988, reached 821. By the year 2000, population density was projected to exceed 1,000 persons per square kilometer.
The crude birth rate per 1,000 population was 34.6 in 1981. This rate remained unchanged in 1985, following a 20-year trend of decline since 1961, when it had stood at 47 per 1,000. The rural birth rate was higher than birth rates in urban areas; in 1985 there were 36.3 births per 1,000 in the countryside versus 28 per 1,000 in urban areas. The crude death rate per 1,000 population decreased from 40.7 in 1951 to 12 per 1,000 in 1985; the urban crude death rate was 8.3, and the rural crude death rate was 12.9. The infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births was 111.9 in 1985, a distinct improvement from as recently as 1982, when the rate was 121.9. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 55.1 years in 1986. Men and women have very similar life expectancies at 55.4 and 55, respectively. With an average life expectancy of 58.8 years, urban dwellers in 1986 were likely to live longer than their rural counterparts (average life expectancy 54.8 years). The sex ratio of the population in 1981 was 106 males to 100 females.
In the late 1980s, about 82 percent of the population of Bangladesh (a total of 15.1 million households) resided in rural areas. With the exception of parts of Sylhet and Rangamati regions, where settlements occurred in nucleated or clustered patterns, the villages were scattered collections of homesteads surrounded by trees. Continuous strings of settlements along the roadside were also common in the southeastern part of the country.
Until the 1980s, Bangladesh was the most rural nation in South Asia. In 1931 only 27 out of every 1,000 persons were urban dwellers in what is now Bangladesh. In 1931 Bangladesh had fifty towns; by 1951 the country had eighty-nine towns, cities, and municipalities. During the 1980s, industrial development began to have a small effect on urbanization. The 1974 census had put the urban population of Bangladesh at 8.8 percent of the total; by 1988 that proportion had reached 18 percent and was projected to rise to 30 percent by the year 2000.
In 1981 only two cities, Dhaka and Chittagong, had more than 1 million residents. Seven other cities--Narayanganj, Khulna, Barisal, Saidpur, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, and Comilla--each had more than 100,000 people. Of all the expanding cities, Dhaka, the national capital and the principal seat of culture, had made the most gains in population, growing from 335,928 in 1951 to 3.4 million in 1981. In the same period, Chittagong had grown from 289,981 to 1.4 million. A majority of the other urban areas each had between 20,000 and 50,000 people. These relatively small towns had grown up in most cases as administrative centers and geographically suitable localities for inland transportation and commercial facilities. There was no particular concentration of towns in any part of the country. In fact, the only large cities close to each other were Dhaka and Narayanganj.
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