8. Bangladesh: country overview

It is difficult to decide what to include in an ‘overview’ on Bangladesh: being brief is the problem. I’m going to write this post under a series of headings. I’ve taken the information from a combination of sources including web (UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD, Population Reference Bureau, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, BBC News, The Economist Intelligence Unit, Amnesty International and the CIA Factbook), my Lonely Planet guide-book and other books and articles that I am reading on Bangladesh.

1. Background

What is today the state of Bangladesh has been through formative periods of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, British and Pakistani rule before subsequent independence. As part of Bengal, Bangladesh had a flourishing Buddhist culture until the 12th century, making Bengal the last stronghold of Buddhism in an increasingly Hindu and Muslim dominated subcontinent. In the 12th century, Hindu armies came to rule Bengal and crushed Buddhism. The arrival of the Muslims, from the 13th century, left a legacy that continues to define the country today. Bangladesh (as East Bengal) was ruled by two great empires – the Mughal Empire from 1576 and the British Raj in the 19th and 20th centuries. After the partition of India in 1947, Muslim East Bengal became East Pakistan. In 1971, Bengali East Pakistan emerged as an independent nation – Bangladesh – when it seceded from its union with West Pakistan (Pakistan today), following a bitter war of liberation. Any person over the age of 62 today would have been born an Indian, become Pakistani after partition in 1947, and finally Bangladeshi in 1971.  (For more detail, see post 14.)

2. A riverine land

As a geographer, Bangladesh is interesting on so many levels, one of which is its river systems. The country, officially named People’s Republic of Bangladesh, can best be described as a vast delta – the largest in the world. The rich alluvial plains of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra river systems make up its core. Water flows south from the Himalayas on its way to the sea at the Bay of Bengal, a flow that is second only to that of the Amazon. The confluence of these great mountain rivers and their vast network of tributaries (there are 5000 miles of navigable waterways) help explain human settlement patterns, agricultural crop cycles, economic conditions and cultural differentiation.

In his novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh, who grew up in Bangladesh, recounts the Hindu legend of how the Ganges delta was formed. The goddess Ganga, from whom the river takes its name, descended from the heavens with such force, that she would have split the earth apart had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent. He did this by weaving it into the strands of his hair. But then his braids unravelled and the river divided into thousands of channels. I like this story!

The first time that I really grasped the full extent of Bangladesh’s flat, watery topography was during a flight from Chittagong to Dhaka. I could see crisscrossed, intertwining, meandering river courses that looked very much like those strands of unravelled and tangled hair. During our descent, there were times when there seemed to be no land at all – only flat green squares of water stretching to infinity. From up here, it was easy to believe that as much water flows through Bangladesh as through all of Europe.

3. Area and landforms

The area is roughly the same as that of England and Wales i.e. 55,598 sq. miles (144,000 sq. km). Most of the land is low, flat and fertile apart from the hilly regions in the north-east, south-east and some areas of high land in the north. The highest point is Keokradong, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east, at 4,035 ft. (1,230 m). Natural resources include gas, coal, limestone, ceramic clay and glass sand, arable land and timber. Bangladesh has one of the largest mangrove forests in the world – the Sundarbans, in the south of the country. (For notes on my visit, see post 38.)

4. Climate

The climate is tropical with three broadly distinct seasons (though Bangladeshis identify six seasons). There is the mild winter from October to March with temperatures around 21 degrees centigrade. This is followed by a hot, humid season from March to June, when temperatures rise to 40 degrees centigrade (and higher) and the humidity becomes intolerable. The warm, humid, rainy, monsoon season follows from June to early October, when temperatures are, on average, around 28 degrees centigrade.

5. Natural hazards: floods and cyclones

Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world, with the lush, low-lying landscape subject to yearly flooding. This is normal and part of life, but occasionally excessive flooding causes widespread destruction and loss of life (e.g. 1988, 1998, 2004 and 2007). I read a report relating to the flood of 1998: it inundated two-thirds of the country and left 30 million people homeless. Susceptibility to cyclones, that gather their strength from the Bay of Bengal, causes further devastation and, on average, Bangladesh is hit by one major cyclone every three years. The worst times for these are May/June and October/November. During my time in Bangladesh, Cyclone Aila (May 25th 2009– see post 34) caused yet further devastation and hardship in the south-west of the country. Droughts are also a recurring problem. Bangladesh remains vulnerable to these natural disasters and to the impact of climate change. Predicted sea level rises would be particularly problematic given its low-lying topography. (For more on environment and climate change implications see  post 53.)

6. Health and environmental concerns

In addition to the above hazards, severe overpopulation means that many people are landless and forced to live on, and cultivate, flood-prone land. (For notes on a visit I made to one such area see post 55.) Soil degradation, salination, erosion and deforestation are issues. Fishing waters are polluted (from commercial pesticide), and naturally occurring arsenic is present in groundwater. There are intermittent water shortages due to falling water tables in the north and centre of the country. Malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in many parts of Bangladesh. Hygiene and sanitation standards are poor throughout the country, and food-and water-borne diseases are common e.g. intestinal diseases. High levels of humidity and pollution, particularly in Dhaka, can also cause serious health problems – particularly respiratory trouble. (For my own experiences in this regard see post 15.) Local clinics and hospitals are generally of a poor standard.

7. Neighbours

Bangladesh is located in south-central Asia and surrounded by Indian territory, except for a short south-eastern boundary with Myanmar (Burma). It borders with the Bay of Bengal in the south. The Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan lie to the north (at their closest points Bangladesh is only about 25 miles from both Nepal and Bhutan, separated by Indian terrain). For notes on my travels in India, and in the Himalayas (Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan), see posts 59 to 62).

The relationship with India is of great importance to Bangladesh for geographical and historical reasons. Despite the Indian role in securing Bangladesh’s independence, relations have often been troubled. One of the biggest issues is security; the Indians claim that Indian separatists are hiding out in Bangladesh. Other contentious issues include water-sharing (more than 50 of Bangladesh’s rivers cross the border), illegal immigration and transit rights. Bangladesh and India are both members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Both countries have spoken of establishing a Free Trade Area, but there has been little progress so far.

8. People

The population of Bangladesh is a staggering 164.4 million (UNFPA, 2010), making it the 7thmost populous country in the world after China, India, United States, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. (At independence in 1970, the population stood at 70 million.) Bangladesh is the most densely populated major country in the world (after city states and small countries – Monaco, Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malta). With 1142 people per square kilometre, its population density is three times higher than that of India and five times that of Pakistan. Rural life predominates, with 80% of the population living in villages. 32% of the population are under 15 years of age with only 4% over 65. (Life expectancy is 67 for men and 69 for women). Bangladesh is noted for its ethnic homogeneity. Over 98 percent of the people are Bengalis, who speak Bangla. However, the remaining 2% makes up sizeable numbers (circa 3 million) that includes diverse ethnic groups, and others. (For issues relating to these groups, see post on human rights, post 57.) [It should be noted that information with regard to population is not entirely accurate because of acknowledged problems with systems of national data collection.]

9. Religion

After Indonesia and Pakistan, Bangladesh has the third largest Muslim population in the world. 89% of people practice Islam. Hinduism is practised by 10% of the population and the remaining 1% are Buddhists and Christians.  See post 37.

10. Language

Bangla, or Bengali, is the principal language in Bangladesh. Language was a key issue in the Liberation War (see post 11). In the sixteenth edition of his Ethnologue, Lewis lists 42 different languages for Bangladesh. You can have a look at his report online, together with a great map. English is quite widely spoken by those with education.

11. Economy

GNI PPP, per capita (2009) for Bangladesh was $1580 (World Bank, 2010).

Regional comparisons: India $3260; Pakistan $2710. (Corresponding data for Ireland is $33,280.)

(Note: GNI PPP per capita is a measure of Gross National Income per capita at purchasing power parity. In other words, this ‘international dollar’ ($) has the same purchasing power over GNI as a US dollar has in the United States. Globally, a figure of $1,170 indicates low income while a figure of $36,227 indicates high income with a range from $57,640 for Luxembourg to $290 for Liberia, though data is not available for all countries. GNI PPP per capita calculations can vary depending on methodology employed. I find it useful though as a tentative tool for making contextual comparisons that are meaningful to me.)

Despite crop failure, population growth, corruption, political turmoil, infrastructural difficulties, cyclones and floods continuing to devastate the country, Bangladesh has made significant economic progress. It has progressed from famine and starvation in the mid-1970s, to feeding itself for the past two decades or so. Annual economic growth has averaged 5-6% since 1996. Nevertheless, four out of every ten people, some 65.7 million, remain in poverty and survive on less than the equivalent of half a US dollar (40 cent) per day. Of these, some 15 million are extremely poor, living on less than 20 taka, or 30 US cents (24 cent), per day.

The economy depends on both the agricultural sector, which underpins private consumption, and the textile industry, which accounts for the bulk of the country’s exports. Other industries include jute, fish, cotton, tea, paper, newsprint, cement, fertilizer, sugar, engineering, electric cables and leather.  Remittances continue to be another important engine of private consumption. Bangladesh receives more than $10 billion in remittances from over one million migrant workers in the Middle East, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and to a lesser degree many EU nations and the US, as well as from the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. For more detail, resources and analysis on the economy see the World Bank’s country page.

12. Development

Bangladesh is the recipient of large amounts of international development aid.  Net overseas development aid (ODA) receipts for 2008 amounted to US$2,061 million, according to OECD/World Bank statistics, with net ODA/GNI at 2.4% (where GNI=Gross National Income). (In the same year India received $2,108 million, net ODA/GNI 0.2%, and Pakistan netted $1,539 million, net ODA/GNI 0.9%.)

The country has some of the largest NGOs in the world: it also has one of the world’s highest densities of NGOs, with an NGO presence in over 80% of villages. These NGOs play an important role in civil society (together with business groups, think tanks and media), especially in relation to giving a voice to the poor and keeping pressure on the state. However, the rapid growth and diversification of these NGOs has also given rise to some questions, particularly in relation to regulation, governance, charges of corruption, and the ethics of their often ‘for profit’ elements. For example, during my time in Bangladesh, the director of the large Bangladeshi NGO, Proshika, was jailed on charges of malpractice. (See  post 9.)

One of the best known NGOs is Grameen Bank, founded by Mohammad Yunus to pioneer micro-credit schemes for poor women, for which he (with Grameen Bank) won the Nobel Peace Prize  in 2006. Since the 1970s, Bangladesh has played a major role in the development of micro-finance models. The Bangladeshi experience has encouraged similar projects throughout the developing world. (See for example the Grameen Foundation.) There have been questions raised around sustainability and verifiability, particularly in the context of the large amounts of foreign money received by Grameen. (Grameen also operates mobile phone and internet businesses). While there are many enabling and transformational stories as a consequence of micro-credit schemes, micro-finance, as a concept for development, is not without its critics (see for example, this article in the Economist).

Another NGO, BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), is said to be the largest NGO in the world. It was founded by Fazle Hasan Abed, who is soon to be knighted by the Queen of England, in recognition of his contribution to the alleviation of poverty. BRAC has a vast nationwide presence and along with doing relief and development work, operates businesses in dairy, poultry and clothing. It has also branched into the areas of health care and education and now has an international presence. Postscript: You can watch an interview here on YouTube with Fazle Hasan Abed. When you have scrolled to the bottom of this post you can browse through BRAC’s annual report for 2009 to get an idea of the breadth of their work.

To focus only on the negative criticism of the NGO sector, especially when it is difficult to substantiate such claims, is to ignore its important transformative powers and its meaningful contribution towards alleviating poverty. This is especially relevant in a country where there are gaps in service provision by the government, and when those services that are provided are not always directed towards the poor. The challenge now for NGOs is to institutionalise reforms at national level, based on their localised achievements (e.g. ‘pockets’ of improved local governance and service delivery). This is not an easy task given the generally antagonistic relationship between NGOs and the state, and is exacerbated further when weaknesses exist in the governance of some NGOs. Ultimately, without political will, effective government and good leadership, the long-term sustainability of development efforts is at stake.

13. Politics (For notes on political culture see post 51)

Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy. Its recent political history has been characterised by instability and violence, and marred by a deep-seated feud between the country’s two main political parties, the AL and the BNP.

The Awami League (AL) is a Bengali nationalist party led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the civilian independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (‘father of the nation’), the founder of the party and the president of the new state from 1971 until his assassination in 1975 during a military coup. (See post 14.) The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is led by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of the military independence leader General Zia (Ziaur Rahman), founder of the party and president of the country from 1975, until he too was assassinated in 1981 by army officers. Military rule continued for the next 10 years under General Ershad until he was forced to step down following mass demonstrations. After 15 years of military rule, democracy was restored in 1990 but the situation continued to be volatile, with tensions running high between the two main parties. Massive protest demonstrations, caretaker governments, election boycotts, election malpractice (e.g. rigging), walk-outs and mass political strikes (known as hartals) have characterised politics in Bangladesh. Against this background, a state of emergency was declared in 2007 and yet another caretaker government instituted. In December 2008, elections were held and were widely regarded as free, fair and neutral. The Awami League (AL)-led Grand Alliance won the election and Sheikh Hasina took on the role of Prime Minister for the second time.

The biggest risk to continuing political stability is the possibility of a return to the highly volatile, confrontational style of politics practised by opposition parties in the recent past. (Some say this reflects personal animosity between the leaders of the two main parties, rather than ideological differences.) Another threat to stability is the possibility of a sustained campaign of violence by any of the numerous militant groups in Bangladesh. Although two of the country’s four main banned militant groups have been outlawed, networks of full-and part-time activists remain in existence. Though traditionally a moderate and tolerant country, the string of bomb attacks in 2005 was a reminder that these groups are still active.

Bangladesh is administratively divided into six divisions:

  • Dhaka, home to the capital city
  • Sylhet, famous for its rolling tea estates
  • Rajshahi, known for its silks and its mangoes
  • Khulna, slow-paced and home to the Sundarbans mangrove forests
  • Barisal, region of rivers and rice paddies
  • Chittagong, hills and forests and diverse ethnic groups.

For administrative purposes, under each division above there are districts (zilas) of which there are 64 in the country. Districts in turn are subdivided into sub-districts (upazilas), upazilas into unions (rural areas consisting of some villages) and unions into villages.

14. Human Rights

Bangladesh signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in September 2000, and was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. It is now a signatory to all seven core human rights instruments. In 2007, the setting up of the long-awaited National Human Rights Commission was approved. This will function as a human rights watchdog. There are documented violations in relation to the rights of workers (e.g. textile workers and tea plantation labourers), women, children, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities and other minorities (e.g. Dalits, Biharis, Rohingya refugees, hijras and homosexuals). Both the police and the army have been accused of excessive use of force and the abuse of their powers. The death penalty has been retained. To read a more detailed post on human rights in Bangladesh see post 57.

15. National symbols

  • National Flag – The national flag is green bearing a red circle.  The background colour symbolises the greenery of Bangladesh, while the red disc represents the rising sun of independence, after a dark night of blood-soaked struggle.
  • National Anthem – The first ten lines of ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ (My Golden Bengal) by Rabindranath Tagore. (See post 29.)
  • National Emblem – The national emblem is made up of the national flower ‘Shapla’ (the water lily, Nymphaea Nouchali) bordered on two sides by rice sheaves. Above the water lily are four stars and three connected jute leaves. The water lily is representative of the many rivers that run through Bangladesh. Jute represents agriculture and rice, the staple food of Bangladesh. The four stars represent the four founding principles that were originally enshrined in the first constitution of Bangladesh in 1972: nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy.
  • The national sport is Kabaddi (derived from a Tamil word meaning ‘holding of hand’). It is a team contact sport that originated in South Asia (in pre-Christian times). Two teams occupy opposite halves of a field and take turns sending a ‘raider’ into the other half, in order to win points by tagging or wrestling members of the opposing team, all the time chanting “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi”.  The raider then tries to return to his own half.  Today, soccer and cricket are more popular.
  • Kazi Nazrul Islam (25 May 1899–29 August 1976) is the national poet.

Below are a few photographs: the maps are very basic – higher resolution is lost at this scale. Click to link to Google Maps. Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.


Click on image below and then on the top-left image (18 photographs). Enjoy!

Bangladesh in context2

To give you an idea of the work of the NGO BRAC, you can browse through their annual report for 2009 below. It will also give you an idea of some of the current issues in Bangladesh. Click on the little arrow to the right to turn the pages.

Postscript: 2021: You can no longer view the BRAC report from here, but by clicking on the image you will be taken to Issuu, the platform which hosts BRAC’s reports. (They no longer allow free embedding on external websites for certain documents.) You can also access more up-to-date reports there too, is you so wish.


5 responses to “8. Bangladesh: country overview

  1. Hi, I’m interested in the language and the link you refer to in no. 10 in this article relating to Ethnologue. Do you know any other way I can access this report?

    • OK, I see where you’re coming from: the site now requires a subscription. I had intended to re-visit this site too. I have no suggestions unfortunately. Did you see the related map in my images for this post (at the bottom of the post)? It’s image no. 11, re language. It gives an overview.

      • OMG ……thank you, thank you, thank you ……this is exactly what I’m after. Your blog is supercool ….deep and meaningful. I will return soon……..

  2. This is invaluable, thank you.

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