*** LONG POST ALERT ***
*Hridi and *Rahim were monumentally elated only thrice in their lifetimes—each time their three children arrived in this world. The family of five members led content and lavish lifestyles during the earlier days of Rahim’s blossoming career as a young civil engineer. Owing to Rahim’s conservative background and Hridi’s lack of post-primary education, Hridi did not feel the need to earn supporting income for the family.
As the rosy days passed, Hridi and Rahim found themselves struggling—at a delicate age of fifty—to provide for the education of the youngest child and the overall burgeoning family expenses after the marriage of their two other children (which for family traditions, invited two more members into the family, making it a large unit of seven people). It was not only heartbreaking for Hridi and Rahim, but also for their youngest child who started to see the first signs of an-uncalled-for-child-neglect.
The opening vignette is one of many such cases occurring on a massive scale in a land called Bangladesh that is the seventh-most populous in the world, and indeed in a world of seven billion inhabitants already that is expected to accommodate three billion more by 2050.[i]
Head to any educational institution in Bangladesh, and you will find students scurrying for seats—approximately 125 centres of higher learning[ii] were entrusted with the matriculation of 885,070 high-school graduates in 2014 alone.[iii] The number of examinees in 2014 was reportedly higher than the previous year by 128,000.[iv]
I cannot assure you a stumble-free, safe, leisurely walk in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, which is teeming with 15,900,000 citizens reeling in acute poverty (around 32% of the country’s total poor population),[v] who are prone to taking drastic criminal measures, such as rape, theft, and genocide (for instance, the carnage carried out in 2009 by 1,200 Bangladesh Rifles soldiers that killed at least 57 higher-ranked army officers[vi]), to satisfy their basic needs.
The internal rural-urban migration due to shabby infrastructural policies—and not the country’s rapid population growth—is primarily blamed[vii] [viii] for jeopardizing the lives of Dhaka’s 16 million residents. It’s not population; it’s population management. Jubilant experts coin fancy theories, much to the dismay of an ‘ordinary’ woman who cannot walk from points A to C without being elbowed by fellow pedestrians in overcrowded cities.
The Environmental Performance Index 2014 (produced by Yale University and Columbia University) places Bangladesh ninth among 178 countries with the worst air quality in the world;[ix] and that screams a different story altogether.
But that’s the picture of just one country which is approximately the same size as Wisconsin. Globally, the total number of chronically undernourished people stands at 805 million as of 2014, according to a rather optimistic estimate by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.[x]
Add to that the phenomena of ‘peak food production,’ which refers to “the point at which the growth in a crop, animal, or other food source begins to slow down.”[xi] A new research[xii] from Yale University, Michigan State University, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany reveals that 16 out of 21 foodstuffs examined began to reach this point between the years 1988 and 2008. Population explosion, increased pollution, and high demand for meat/dairy-based diets are key determinants of the peak food production.
780 million people do not have access to clean water, while an estimated 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation, reveals UN-Water.[xiii] World-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Nathan Wolfe had once said, while explaining viral pandemics such as AIDS, “Viruses actually need population density as fuel.”[xiv]
I find it hilarious when religious leaders proudly and eloquently proclaim the several impractical and even outrageous wisdoms behind permitting polygamy, with ‘increasing children in order to strengthen the nation’ and ‘supporting unmarried women because statistically there are more women than men’ being two of them.[xv] [xvi] Will it not be simpler and more respectful to a woman’s sentiments[xvii] if these religious leaders advocate for a sustainable population policy and family planning that saves nations from being at loggerheads with each other for resources and that corrects this alleged imbalance in the ratio of women to men?
Overpopulation results in increased pollution, dwindling resources (especially landmass), absolute poverty, and premature deaths—and you do not have to be an avid follower of Aristotle, Thomas Robert Malthus, or Dan Brown, to imagine this causality. Yet, political leaders are not alarmed.
The significance of population cannot, and should not, be undermined. Beginning with the cities I get to observe more closely due to proximity—Dhaka and Chittagong, I soon discover that these two divisions naturally make the highest contributions (36% and 11% respectively) to the national GDP because of the high population.[xviii]
United States, the third-populous nation in the world, boasts the highest nominal GDP in the world and holds the tenth position to have the highest GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita. China and India with their mammoth populations place second and tenth respectively among countries with the highest nominal GDP (although the GDP at PPP per capita paints a grim picture for these two countries as they stand 89th and 126th respectively in the list of countries with the highest GDP at PPP per capita—a point that I shall return to, later in this essay).[xix] [xx] [xxi] China’s current growth is often cited as a result of its population momentum.[xxii]
Declining and aging populations are major concerns for any country that wants to perform well on the economic frontier. By 2050, seniors over the age of 60 will outnumber children under the age of 15 for the first time in history.[xxiii] China is predicted to become the world’s most aged society by 2030.[xxiv] According to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), India and Indonesia will supersede China in terms of economic growth rate by 2020.[xxv] In 2012, more than 13,600 primary schools closed down in China.[xxvi] The macro-business website Unconventional Economist summarizes these forecasts and developments with the maxim: China will grow old before it grows rich.[xxvii]
The eight low-fertility countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States) are considering a number of policies, such as replacement/international migration, integration of migrants and their descendants, and healthcare benefits for the elderly, to tackle declining and aging populations.[xxviii]
Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, noted, “To have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences.”[xxix] In that same article, he delineates the population situation and the consequent policies of Singapore, a country which—although not designated as low-fertility—is nonetheless witnessing a steady decline in its population. He concludes with a list of measures taken by Singapore’s government to encourage mothers to bear not one, not two, but “three or four—or more—children.”
Despite such overwhelming counterarguments in favour of a growing population, one cannot turn away from the fact that Pakistan, despite being the sixth most populous country in the world, is 46th among countries with the highest nominal GDP in the world and 135th among countries with the highest GDP at PPP per capita in the world. This is the point where fancy expert theories that commoners detest become a little more sensible and appealing. The key is indeed in population management; not population.
The ‘replacement rate’ is the reproduction rate that keeps a population stable. For developed nations, the ideal rate is 2.1. Lee Kuan Yew provides powerful insights through the use of this metric. Nearly half of the world’s population, and especially Europe, has birth rates lower than that desirable rate, he asserts. The United States is an exemplary nation that seems to have grasped and implemented the concept of population management thoroughly. It has maintained its population close to the replacement rate at 2, and is therefore not aging as fast as many other countries. It is disposed to become, in L.K. Yuan’s words, “the slowly aging leader of a rapidly aging world.”
Let us now turn our attention to another emerging economic power—India. Almost 66% of India’s population comprises of youths, making it the largest source of young people in the world. The median age is 27, compared to 37 in the US and 46 in Japan.[xxx] Although this does not ensure a robust economy, a slowly aging population signals tremendous potential of international competitiveness. The consequences of aging population will be slower and less dramatic, and India will have a huge pool of young labour for the world to tap into, given the government invests in education and training of young people without any discrimination.
India’s case illustrates the concept of ‘demographic dividend’ which refers to gains/losses in per capita income due to changing population age structure.[xxxi] Depending on the structure of a country’s population, a growing population could either be a dividend or a curse. The population of each country needs to be managed effectively to make the best use of human potential, before the population spirals out of control towards an unwanted direction—be it declining, aging, booming, or idling.
Bangladesh presents a unique, paradoxical story. On one hand, the median age in Bangladesh as of 2010 is 24—even lower than that of India.[xxxii] Simply put, Bangladesh has a demographic dividend. This alone could make many Hridis and Rahims beam with joy at the prospect of witnessing and savoring a youth-fuelled economic prosperity; and yet—on the other hand—this is not the reality.
There are differing reports with regards to the country’s replacement rate. It is estimated at 2.45 as of 2014 by Central Intelligence Agency.[xxxiii] The World Bank puts the rate of Bangladesh at 2.2 as of 2012.[xxxiv] In either case, the rate is higher than desired for a nation that has still retained the ‘least developed country (LDC)’ status since its inclusion in the LDC list in 1975—four years into the country’s inception.
With such a backdrop, it is only feasible for leaders in Bangladesh to advocate for a ‘Proudly Small’ family until the population replacement rate becomes stable and well-suited for a developing country. Simultaneously, the leaders of this country—which is the 14th most corrupt in the world as of 2014[xxxv]—must invest in education, training, and infrastructure development to utilize the demographic dividend to its fullest, so that there is room for everyone without the need for nudging. This will tackle both booming and idling population crises.
Firstly—on the global front—world leaders must chalk out population management strategies based on each country’s unique replacement rate and demographic structure—there is no one-size-fits-all prescription. Developed nations in particular are well-positioned to serve as role-models for struggling economies.
Secondly, world leaders need to appeal for a structured, gender-sensitive sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) education in primary and secondary schools, which gradually culminates into a pragmatic SRHR assessment examination either at the tertiary level or at the general certificate education (GCE) ordinary/advanced level(s), especially in developing regions and conservative cultures. This is necessary to prevent a population mismanagement arising out of unwanted pregnancies and violation of SRHR. Young people who want to learn more about sexuality and intimacy often fall prey to unstructured sources, such as pornographic materials, which do not elucidate on rights, choices, and population implications.
Lastly, world leaders need to recognize adoption as a plausible means of replacement migration/integration, and to remove social, legal, and religious barriers[xxxvi] for infertile couples who want to adopt. ‘Proudly Small’ families and nations that are in need of a replacement population can therefore become beacons of social justice. Although the number of orphans is growing—over 7 million children are in institutional care worldwide[xxxvii]—international adoptions have dropped by 50% since 2004 due to political opposition, among other factors.[xxxviii]
In conclusion, the threat of population mismanagement is real. World leaders must wake up to this reality, and globally mobilize ‘Proudly Small’ population management concepts—be it bearing less children or adopting more, depending on the country in question. Failing to do that, humans will die, not of plagues and wars, but of uncontrolled population.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
[i] Farrell, P. B. (2012, February 14). Global suicide 2020: We can’t feed 10 billion. Retrieved January 27, 2015, from Market Watch:
[ii]Universities in Bangladesh. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[iii] Staff Correspondent. (2014, August 14). Brilliant. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[iv] HSC exams begin today. (2014, April 3). Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[v] Staff Correspondent. (2014, August 28). Dhaka division home to highest number of poor. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[vi] Bangladesh Rifles revolt. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[vii] Basu, I. (2012, September 18). Dhaka's invisible inhabitants. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[viii] Parvez, S. (2014, March 11). Rush for cities cuts poverty but blights urban livability. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[ix] Tribune Online Report. (2014, January 29). Bangladesh ninth-most polluted country. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from Dhaka Tribune:
[x] CAPARRÓS, M. (2014, September 27). Counting the Hungry. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The New York Times:
[xi] The Independent (UK). (2015). Have we reached 'peak food'? The Daily Star (Bangladesh).
[xiii] Water Cooperation Facts & Figures. (2013). Retrieved January 29, 2015, from UN-Water:
[xiv] Cooper, A. (2008, December 9). World. Retrieved January 29, 2015, from CNN:
[xv] Al-Munajjid, S. M. (n.d.). Fiqh of the Family: Plural marriage and fair treatment of co-wives. Retrieved January 29, 2015, from Islam Question & Answer:
[xvi] Woman Challenging Zakir Naik on Polygamy. (2010, June 11). Retrieved January 29, 2015, from The message of the Messengers (Youtube channel):
[xvii] Al-Munajjid, S. M. (n.d.). Fiqh of the Family: Plural marriage and fair treatment of co-wives. Retrieved January 29, 2015, from Islam Question & Answer:
[xviii] Staff Correspondent. (2014, August 28). Dhaka division home to highest number of poor. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[xix] List of countries and dependencies by population. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[xx] List of countries by GDP (nominal). (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[xxi] List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[xxii] Wang, F. (2010, September). China’s Population Destiny: The Looming Crisis . Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Brookings-Tsinghua Center:
[xxiii] Associated Press. (2013). Aging around the world: Elderly people from across the globe share their hopes and fears in a youth obsessed society. The Daily Mail UK.
[xxiv] Huang, Y. (2013, November 10). Population Aging in China: A Mixed Blessing. Retrieved January 30, 2015, from The Diplomat:
[xxv] Johansson, Å., Guillemette, Y., Murtin, F., Turner, D., Nicoletti, G., Maisonneuve, C. d., et al. (2012). Looking to 2060: Long-term global growth prospects. OECD.
[xxvi] Rafferty, K. (2013, September 3). Commentary/World. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Japan Times:
[xxviii] United Nations Population Division. (2000). Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? . United Nations Population Division.
[xxix] Yew, L. K. (2012, October 16). Current Events. Retrieved January 30, 2015, from Forbes:
[xxx] Priya, P. (2014, August 28). Cover Story: India's youth -- blessing or curse? Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Nikkei Asian Review:
[xxxi] Wang, F. (2010, September). China’s Population Destiny: The Looming Crisis . Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Brookings-Tsinghua Center:
[xxxii] List of countries by median age. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Wikipedia:
[xxxiii] CIA. (2014). Total Fertility Rate. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from The World Factbook:
[xxxiv] Data: Fertility rate, total (births per woman). (2012). Retrieved January 31, 2015, from The World Bank:
[xxxv] Star Online Report. (2014, December 3). Bangladesh 14th most corrupt country. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from The Daily Star:
[xxxvi] Islam, M. (2014, June 1). The Broad Spectrum of Adoption. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from World Pulse:
[xxxvii] Children's Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2015, from SOS Children's Villages USA:
[xxxviii] Voigt, K., & Brown, S. (2013, September 17). International adoptions in decline as number of orphans grows. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from CNN: