Bangladesh has recently reached the regime of demographic dividend wherein the share of working labour force is swelling. If appropriately approached to utilise this population, nothing could deter its development. A society might be poor in terms of endowments of natural resources but, given appropriate policies and their proper implementation, a developed human resource base could show the paths to overcome poverty. Taiwan sets an example where her richness sprang out of poor natural resource base only due to strong human capital.
Although the number of households in rural Bangladesh has increased over time, because of family split and migration, members per household (household size) have drastically declined from 6.15 in the eighties to 4.24 in recent years. Without going into hair-scratching calculus, we can possibly argue that such a reduction in household size would mean a reduction of rice consumption by 1.0 kg per day per household. At household level, the money so saved on account of rice could be put to education or health. At national level, policymakers could feel a sigh of relief as far as rice is concerned and possibly ponder over emphasising non-rice crops. Field level information further reveals an increase in the proportion of spouses (a result of selective migration of household heads) and a reduction in the proportion of non- relatives living in the household. The latter could be adduced to a reduction in permanent labour used previously by household to supervise farm work which is now rarely observed in rural households.
We observe that the proportion of infants (aged 0-5) has been gradually declining over time, and so is the case for children aged 6-10. In other words, the proportion of population aged up to 10 years has significantly fallen from about 40 to about 27 per cent between 1988 and 2013. This implies that the base of the population pyramid has substantially shrunk over time. Suffice it to say here that, from policy point of view, we should now be less concerned with construction of more primary schools as the primary school age population has been going down. Rather, it would be effective to divert the resources for improvement of the quality of primary education.
However, there has been a rise in the ratio of 61 plus population - thanks to improved life expectancy following improved healthcare. The most important good news relates to a fall in total dependence that seemingly enables households to divert resources to productive pursuits. Finally, the rise in working age population from 49 to 58 per cent during the comparable periods points to the above-mentioned demographic dividend that Bangladesh is facing. The working age group had been constantly entering into the labour market to strengthen the economic base. Thus, the fall in the proportion of people at the lower end of the population pyramid relieves us somewhat as the dependence rate has been reducing. But, at the same time, increased working-age population carries a tension for policymakers as jobs need to be created for the increasing labour force.
The child-woman ratio - a reflection of the current fertility level - has gone down from 67 per 1,000 in the eighties to 36 recently which shows further success in population control. However, there is very little room for complacency as the fertility rate is still high in absolute sense. Intuitively, the rate of reduction in fertility has been faster for the small land owning groups. This could be due to the roles played by NGOs and government agencies which target the poor segment in terms of education and extension. Interestingly, education of husband and wife does not seem to have much effect on fertility control.
With economic growth and transformation, societies tend to witness break-up of families. Engagements of household members in different economic occupations apparently work behind the break-up. Bangladesh is no exception to this historic truth, not even in its rural areas. The incidence of joint families has been going down with the migration of young adults to urban areas and formation of separate families. Large families comprising 6-7 members or more are now seen in TV serials - possibly for reminiscence of the past. However, with break-up of families, the proportion of single and two-member families has increased. These may be old-age parents. Disconcertingly, the data show that about 3.0 in 100 households are now single households compared to less than 1.0 in 1988. Most of the single-member families are extreme poor (36 per cent single and 41 per cent two-member) with very low land and non-land asset base. This has immense ramifications for social safety nets.
There are two more important transformations that need a mention. First, roughly one-fifths of the girls aged 15-17 (child marriage) get married and there is no deviation in the trend over time. There are regional variations with, say, Kurigram, Bogra, Thakurgaon etc. witnessing child marriage to the tune of 30-40 per cent. Secondly, the incidence of female-headed households in rural areas has increased substantially from 6 to 15 per cent between 1988 and 2013. In the Bangladesh context - and possibly everywhere too- female-headed households are generally considered fragile in socio-economic indicators, and more so in terms of security. But a rise in the share of such households in Bangladesh warrants a different explanation. This could be the result of migration of male members to urban areas or overseas. We can also possibly presume that growing feminisation of agriculture in Bangladesh has its roots in widespread migration of male members. Thus, it would be erroneous to conclude that female-headed households are necessarily fragile in terms of socio-economic indicators.
Modern technology and other contributory factors apart, the rural transformation owes immensely to the changing demographic dynamic. Data show that demography has been at the driving seat of rural transformation in Bangladesh, and reinforcing the observation of Michael Lipton that fertility is one of the three drivers of rural transformation in Bangladesh.
All said, the need for education and skill training for reaping a demographic dividend can hardly be exaggerated. The curricula of tertiary education need to match the growing demand of industry and service sectors. The existing unemployment rate among educated youth at 25-30 per cent calls for the growth of skill training institutions throughout the country. Finally, at this transformative stage, we need the creation of decent jobs not jobs per se to eke out a bare minimum living. A political commitment translated into actions is the solution to avoid a demographic disaster.
The author is a former Professor of Economics, Jahnagirnagar University
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