The overwhelming population density of our country has always been a matter of great concern for our economic development. However, at the same time, skilled manpower is considered a resource for a country like Bangladesh as it plays a key role in different development sectors and is critical in boosting a country’s economy. But what happens if the population pressure is too high and exerts excess pressure on natural resources?
The classical debate whether population growth is beneficiary or detrimental to development has been prevalent through centuries. In the Eighteenth century a British reverend and political economist Thomas Robert Malthus first proposed a reverse relationship between population growth and development. According to him, population growth must outstrip resource base to support that burgeoning population at some point, which is popularly known as Malthusian trap. Therefore, he suggested population growth must be checked in order to prevent poverty, famine or inequality of wealth distribution in the society.
Over the course of Nineteenth and Twentieth century the Malthusian belief gained ground around the world, especially in developing countries like Bangladesh, India and China. As they were among the major food deficit countries and had been plagued by recurrent famines and poverty, Malthus as well as neo-Malthus devotee like Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich argued these countries should prioritize restricting population growth rather than expanding production. They concluded that development growth will ultimately fail to catch up to population growth.
However, there are other theories from both economic left and economic right, as well as empirical evidences that don’t coincide with this view. The other school of thought viewed growing population as an opportunity for economic development. Ester Boserup, a Danish economist presented her argument regarding population, argued that population pressure leads to the invention of modern agricultural practices and this was also evident in ancient civilizations. Women’s role in agriculture and rural economy brought changes in the social organization of the society with more women directly involved in agricultural production, which ultimately led to downward adjustments in their fertility rate after a period of high population growth.
Now the question is whether Malthusianism really holds water in Bangladesh or it's theoretical mumbo jumbo. No other things have had such a direct influence to raising output than population growth. Interestingly, growing population act as consumers too. Farmers reengineered the production process to sustain with the population growth and to raise the level of productivity or income for ensuring the household survival. New technologies are introduced as well as labour input is raised to match the productivity.
After independence, the population of Bangladesh was around 75 millions, whereas in 2016 it is about 160 millions. Though current population is twice as much as it was in 1971, Bangladesh has appropriated food security compared to 1971. Our country has made a tremendous success over the past few decades to ensure food security for its population. High population density with no new land for cultivation, our existing croplands have been used more efficiently by reducing the fallow period, introduction of high yield hybrid crops, crop rotation system, land management, and developed irrigation system. Moreover, Bangladesh is in such a demographic dividend situation where almost 11 people are capable workforce out of every 15. So, there are available inputs of labour, which can increase the output as well.
In developing countries like Bangladesh it has been observed that Malthusian crisis is waiting, given extreme pressures on land and impoverished agrarian sector. Yet, the diversification of livelihood created small-scale income generating source. Population growth increases the mouth to feed that directly creates the demand or market for the consumption. But if a society fails to manage it properly, poverty will increase which will in turn create a Malthusian trap.
The response of population growth varies from country to country and locality to locality on the basis of their successful intensification of production. Considering Bangladesh’s case, significant increase in the agricultural production from 1950 to 1986 through the intensification process helped to lower the percentage of the population below the poverty line during this period.
Taking all the theories into account it is quite obvious that neither model fit exactly in Bangladesh. Innovations such as tube well irrigation, high yielding crop varieties, and other technologies have meant that Bangladesh proved self-sufficiency in food production. Boserup, however, agree with Malthus that extreme population growth may have an adverse effect on development. Keeping this in mind, Bangladesh has succeeded to lower population growth and still has the tremendous opportunity to increase the agricultural production even further.
This article was co-authored by the students of MDS, Dhaka University.