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Population, Spatial Distribution Bangladesh has the third largest and most homogeneous population in south and southeast Asia and the eighth largest population in the world. About three-fourths of its population are rural, about two-thirds are agricultural, and more than 85% are Muslims. About 99% of the population speak the Bangla. The age structure is youthful (45% are in the age group of below 15 years), and the population density is very high.



Patterns of population distribution and size before the Buddhist period (until 10th century AD) are not known. During this period there were two main regions of highest population concentration: the Tista-Karatoya interfluves of East Bengal, covering what is now northern Bangladesh and part of northern West Bengal (India); and the lower Meghna valley covering eastern and central Bengal plain. The southern and northeastern parts of East Bengal (now covering Khulna division and parts of Dhaka and Sylhet divisions) were either sparsely populated or uninhabited due to large covers of tidal forests, swamps and shifting river channels.

In mid-12th century when the Buddhist Pala dynasty was overthrown by the Sena kings, who were orthodox Hindus, and followed a policy of persecution of Buddhists, the dominant population group in that time, many Buddhists took refuge in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and even as far as Cambodia and Laos in fear of possible persecution. Subsequently, the population of this part of Bengal declined significantly as the three major centres of Buddhist culture (mahasthan, paharpur and mainamati) in East Bengal were destroyed.

The advent of Muslims coincided with the persecution of Buddhists in Bengal and north India by Hindus, and many oppressed Buddhists and untouchable Hindus embraced islam during the 11th and 13th centuries. Buddhists were also attracted to Islam mostly by the cult of sufism, which has spiritual parallel with Buddhist philosophy. By 1211, Muslims in Bengal numbered between 2 and 3 million and the population of East Bengal during this time reached a total of about 6 million.

After the fall of the Brahminic Hindu rule by the invading Turks in the early 13th century, various parts of Bengal were consolidated and brought under a semi-independent Sultanate with capital first at gaur and then at sonargaon. From this period the region received a continuous flow of Muslim immigrants from various parts of India. These immigrants led the great land reclamation schemes of southern Bengal and a few other non-settled areas, which continued for several centuries. Probably because of the late influx of Muslims in this part (southern Bengal/delta area) their proportion has remained lower in later centuries. During the period between the 13th and 15th centuries, however, the estimated population of Bengal fluctuated between 5 and 10 million owing to repeated visits of various natural disasters and epidemics.

During these two stages of population evolution, the pattern was of gradual growth over a short period followed by an abrupt decline in response to various disasters such as epidemics, natural hazards (floods, earthquakes, tropical cyclones, river bank erosion, etc.) often followed by famines. The long-term change was more or less static.

During the British period the population distribution was taking a definite pattern in most parts of East Bengal and was assuming a highly settled rural pattern. The exact figures of birth or death rates were not known for this period, but considering the overall demographic situation of the 18th and 19th centuries, it may be thought that both were very high leading to a very low rate of population growth. During the 19th century, the population of East Bengal grew very slowly because of repeated occurrences of famines and epidemics.

The extent of population concentration in East Bengal during the present century is to be understood in its geopolitical context. The creation of a Muslim political unit in Bengal under the framework of Pakistan was not necessarily viewed as the result of direct Hindu-Muslim cleavage since in Bengal, Islam has always been accommodating and tolerant. With the Partition of Bengal in 1947, East Bengal within the framework of Pakistan with a population of 42 million, was separated from relatively less densely populated area of high economic potentials (some having overall Muslim predominance), such as the brahmaputra valley, the northern tea plantation areas and part of the Calcutta-Hughli industrial complex.

The post-partition political antagonism between India and Pakistan affected East Pakistan both demographically and economically much more than the less populated and industrially developed West Pakistan. Accompanying the partition was a wave of religious rioting, murder and arson together with mass displacement of population across the newly established borders of India and the two wings of Pakistan (West and East Pakistan) separated from each other by about 2000 km. Order was not restored until spring, 1948. Consequently, a demographically significant population shift affecting regional population distribution by religion took place on the basis of religion-communal criteria.

Shortly after partition, the concentration of population by religious beliefs became more exclusive and distinctive as a result of selective population exchange based on religion. According to the Indian census sources, India received 2.55 million Hindu refugees from East Bengal. In exchange, East Bengal received 0.70 million from West Bengal and Bihar. Within less than a decade this culminated into what may be termed as the 'demographic divide' coupled with demographic immaturity, immobility and a lack of extraterritorial population expansion. With high birth and declining death rates, the population has been showing an accelerated increase during last several decades.

Table 1 Evolution of population, 1881-2001

Year   Population (miln)   increase in %   Exponential growth   density (persons per km2 )  
1881 25.09 - - 180
1901 28.92 - - 206
1921 33.25 - - 240
1941 41.99 - - 300
1951 44.16 5.17 0.50 315
1961 55.22 25.16 2.26 325
1974 76.39 28.35 2.48 535
1981 89.91 17.69 2.32 625
1991 111.46 22.20 2.03 720
2001 129.25 15.96 1.53 832

The war of liberation took place in 1971 and to thwart it, the Pakistani military junta embarked upon a military action that led to one of the greatest human tragedies of this century. It has been estimated that more than 1.6 million people died as a result of the Pakistani military persecution. Millions of Bengalis fled from their homes into neighbouring India. Over a nine-month period, 10 million refugees from Bangladesh poured into the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. The average daily influx was approximately 36,000 persons and during the peak flow months of May and June, the refugee influx often exceeded 100,000 a day. In May 1971 alone, there were nearly 3 million new arrivals. Nearly all of those who arrived after mid-May (over 6 million) were sheltered in hastily constructed camps, but some moved in with relatives as well. By December 1971, about 1,200 camps were operating along the 2,160- km India-Bangladesh border.

This important geopolitical event, however, had virtually no demographic effect on the distribution of population in Bangladesh, since after the liberation of the country, almost all refugees returned home voluntarily. This was probably the most successful voluntary return of refugees in the world. But, at the same time, a sizeable well-to-do non-Bengali population left Bangladesh for Pakistan and some for India in exchange of the Bengalis stranded in Pakistan. Besides, about 125,000 non-Bengalis, popularly known as the Biharis, who collaborated with the Pakistanis, were repatriated with the POWs by the initiatives of the ICRC and the Indian government.

The growth of population in the present century has been the result of an excess of births over deaths as there has been no large-scale immigration. And since the last century, two stages of acceleration in the pattern of population change in Bangladesh have taken place: (a) the slow rate population growth until 1921; and (b) the accelerating increase of population since 1921 and a fresh momentum to it after 1951.

In 1901, Bangladesh had a population of 28.9 million. It increased by 9.1 percent by 1911. In the period 1911-21, the rate of increase was very slow at 5.4 percent due to high mortality from the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. After that the growth rate started to recover until 1931. In view of the over estimation in the 1941 census, it is not possible to examine the exact rate of increase of population for the decade 1931-41. It is, however, observed that this decade was a normal one regarding the fertility and mortality conditions and the population increase might have been higher than 18 percent. In the next decade, the rate of increase was low at 5.2 percent due to the Bengal famine in 1943, which took away about 2.8 million lives, and to subsequent movement of population during the Partition of Bengal in 1947. The decade 1951-61 showed a relatively higher rate of population increase, owing to somewhat stable socio-political conditions, the combined effect of the efforts of improved health condition adopted in post-famine years and a successful check on famines. To a great extent, this rise has been the result of an unprecedented acceleration of the rate of growth of Muslim population (26.9 percent) in the country. The increase in population during 1951-61 and the subsequent period reflects the impact of the post-partition 'demographic divide', the eradication of several killer diseases, such as malaria, smallpox and cholera, particularly, in 1971-81, and an improvement in child and maternal mortality situation as a result of the Extended Programme on Immunisation (EPI) during 1981-91.

Various estimates confirm that the increase in the pre-partition period was not very rapid and the CBR and CDR were estimated at 50 to 55 and 41 to 47 respectively, although sometimes, especially during epidemics or famines the death rate reached as high as 60. This gave an annual rate of population increase of less than one percent during the early twentieth century. After 1931, the growth of population became a little faster as a result of the consequences of measures undertaken to check the intensity of epidemics and local diseases as well as improvement in health and sanitary situations. This effected a drop in death rate to about 42 in the 1930s, while the birth rate remained more or less stable and high. The mortality and fertility conditions were offset during 1941-51 by famine and the unsettled socio-political situation, resulting in a low annual increase in population (less than one percent). During 1951-61, the population increased by about 2.2 percent a year.

Table 2 Vital rates, 1881-1991

Year CBR CDR IMR
1881 na 41.0 na
1901 na 44.4 na
1921 52.9 47.3 198
1941 54.7 37.8 200
1951 49.4 40.7 168
1961 48.1 29.7 144
1971 51.7 35.0 200
1981 42.0 14.0 122
1991 32.0 11.0 91

The first census of independent Bangladesh was held on 1 March 1974. Three major calamities - natural and man-made took place during the 1961-74 inter-census period contributing substantially to the total death rate. The tropical cyclone and tidal surge of November 1970 cost between 200,000 to 600,000 human lives, mostly in the coastal region. During the war of liberation, there were indiscriminate killings and torching of villages by the Pakistan army as they swept out from the towns into the rural areas in pursuit of the freedom fighters. An estimate by the UN put 16.6 million displaced from their homes within Bangladesh for at least one month. About 3 million people were killed. This raised the CDR from a normal level of 16 to 21 during the war. In 1974 (the census year), there was a famine in Bangladesh. The number of deaths during this famine was officially estimated at 30,000. Despite these catastrophes, the population count in 1974 reached 71.4 million. The above incidents also depressed the CBR to some extent although the overall trend in the fertility pattern was not affected.

During 1974 to 1991, a downward trend in CBR has been observed with a marked decline in the CDR. The decline in CBR and CDR was the result of the successful control of communicable diseases and food shortages/famines, improvement of medical facilities, and to some extent, the impact of the family planning activities.

The regional pattern of population density In 1901, there were 526 persons per sq. mile in Bangladesh. The respective figures for 1961 and 1991 were 1,004 and 1,998. Despite the change in the overall population density in the country, its regional patterns in the present decades have shown little change, particularly in the pre-independence decades. An exception was Dhaka, which had an abnormally high density of population (more than 7,000 persons per sq mile). Three generalised density zones can be identified for 1961 and 1974. These are: less densely populated zones in western and eastern Bangladesh; medium density zone in the central part extending from north to south; and very high density zone in and around Dhaka division.

In 1981 and 1991, the spatial pattern of population density showed a skewed distribution. The distribution fell into -2 to +5 (x = 1918 d = 1005.4) with Dhaka remaining as a highly densely populated district in 1981. In 1991, the skewness further sharpened, ranging from -2 to +6 (x = 2313 d = 1344.5), again with Dhaka as an exceptional district.

This presents Bangladesh as one of the most densely populated areas of the world, but unlike other densely populated areas in western Europe which have intensive agricultural and a high degree of industrial and urban development, Bangladesh is primarily a rural oriented agricultural country. The greater the amount of cropland, the larger is the population in the districts and the higher is the density of population per unit area. Bangladesh shows a significantly positive coefficient of correlation (r = + 0.923) between total cropland and population of different districts. Also, the influence of rivers on the human habitat is reflected in the greater concentration of population and economic institutions along their banks.

The differences in the spatial pattern of population in recent times were caused primarily by the regional differences in mortality and regional migration under a situation of post-partition demographic divide. With few exceptions, the decades of 1950s and 1980s experienced some movement of population within the country but there had been no uniformity in population change amongst the different regions. The patterns of population change during 1961-74 and 1974-81 periods were more consistent in the country. The most likely causes were the success in eradicating some of the communicable diseases and epidemic, and improvements in management of situations of local food shortage and famines.

Some areas in the western part of the country recorded a marked variation in the patterns of population change mainly because of forced population movements during the War of Liberation. People dislocated from these areas in 1971 returned after the War and along with them also returned many others, who migrated to India earlier from these areas. Many also moved to Dhaka and thereby abnormally increasing its population in l974.

The movement of agricultural populations from high-density area of the central zone to northern Bangladesh may seem to be a plausible cause for a marked population change in a number of northern districts in recent years. [K M Elahi]



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