A survey report titled, "Bangladesh Sample Vital Statistics (BSVS) 2020" unveiled on Monday last has come up with many a positive for the nation even in this most critical time. However, the title should have been Sample Bangladesh Vital Statistics because it is sample vital statistics of Bangladesh. Clearly, the focus is on the demographic status and changes during the year 2020, which shed light on this nation's present and future course of advancement and the challenges to be encountered on the way.
The positives are undoubtedly enviable. That the longevity of the people has risen gives an impression that the country is doing well in terms of availability of foods, improvement in health and hygiene and better access to pure drinking water and healthcare for the average population. The survey finds that the average life expectancy at birth has risen to 72.8 years in 2020 from 72.6 years in 2019. Of particular interest is women's performance. Women also outlived men on an average five years ago in 2015 when their life expectancy was 72 years as against men's 69.4 years. But after five years, a woman can expect to live up to 74.5 years whereas for a man this cutting point is 71.2 years ---a difference of 3.3 years.
How phenomenal an achievement has been made by the country is best illustrated by the fact that the average life expectancy for the population here in 1950-55 was only 40.7 years. This rose to 46.59 years in 1971 but then women had a shorter life expectancy at 45.8 years on an average. These figures show that the nation has come a long way off and women have made greater strides than men.
That the country's emergence as an independent country has made this possible is beyond doubt. Still there are miles to go. Women are yet to receive the place they deserve in society. Men are still more equal than women in families, workplaces and in public space. Although, more girls are enrolled with primary and secondary schools, the bigger margin continues to shrink at every step of education later on. The good thing, though, is that in several disciplines of higher education, girls are capturing most of the top positions.
Then, how the survey's literacy rate should be accepted is not clear. It claims that the country's literacy rate has risen to 75.6 per cent (15 years and above) from 64.6 per cent five years back. If it has happened, it is no less than a miracle. Can the 100 per cent auto pass for SSC and HSC has had something to do? The year is known for learning regression because of loss of in-person schooling.
If the trend of women's empowerment is highly encouraging, societal backward mentality and the attendant ills are so prevalent that the gains are mostly negated by male aggression. Until and unless the male mental block gives in to a liberalised and unbiased view of life and society, the rot will continue to undermine social progress.
What matters most is reaping demographic dividends. Hopefully women will continue to march ahead as they have done so far in independent Bangladesh. But another highly encouraging factor in favour of Bangladesh is its age distribution. As high as 54.9 per cent people of its 169.11 million population are aged between 15 and 49. This is where Bangladesh should direct its focus in order to develop its manpower resources equal to the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.
Indeed, its population can either be a precious resource or a precarious burden depending on how the policymakers and planners plan with this asset. In this context, the bad news is that more people now live in a square kilometre than they used to in 2015. According to the survey report, 1,140 people now live in a square kilometre where the number of people was 1,125 in 2015. Although the annual birth rate has come down to 1.3 per cent last year from 1.37 in 2015, the spatial population density unfolds a nightmarish spectre.
This further calls for more pragmatic policies and better education for the population. On this score, Planning Minister MA Mannan has rightly demanded real time data instead of demographic information and figures after five years or 10 years. A densely populated country's concern for living spaces, particularly when climate change is wreaking havoc and the country's coastal areas are threatened by sea rise, ought to be taken most seriously. Now that the country is going digital, preparation of yearly data on population and households should not be a problem.
In fact, there is a need for a national data base that will serve as the source of information about individuals, human and material assets this country has at its command. A well-prepared national data base can avoid many cumbersome and costly exercises now carried out in many areas starting from identifying vulnerable people needing to be brought under social security net to talent hunting to tracking criminals on the run. Decades ago the country had no means of undertaking such projects but now it is no more a big ask to accomplish such demographic exercises.