Bangladesh (population 150,448,000 in 2007, gross domestic product $208 billion in 2007) is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. A south Asian country, it is almost entirely surrounded by India except for the small Burmese border and the Bay of Bengal to the south.
Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal were once united as the kingdom of Bengal, which became an Indian province under British control in the 19th century. Bengal was instrumental in the Indian independence movement, and when India finally gained that independence, the province of Bengal was divided between Hindu West Bengal and Muslim East Bengal, the latter under the control of Pakistan. Bengal-Pakistan tensions were high from the beginning, and when the Pakistani government failed to respond to the damage caused by the Bhola cyclone that devastated the Bay of Bengal in 1970, outrage helped to motivate the Bangladesh Liberation War, which eventually won the support of India and overlapped with the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Independence from Pakistan was successfully declared on March 26, 1971.
Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh, though there is a sizable Hindu minority. A parliamentary democracy, Bangladesh holds direct elections for its 345 members of the Jatia Sangsad. Forty-five seats are always held by women. The president, the head of state, is elected by the members of parliament and appoints the prime minister, the head of government, who is always a member of parliament and who forms the cabinet and is responsible for the day to day business of governance. The president’s powers are largely confined to the caretaker government that presides during election periods, but he or she also appoints the justices of the Supreme Court. Bangladesh’s legal heritage is a mixture of British common law and local religious traditions, and thus laws vary some from municipality to municipality, in keeping with local customs.
Bangladesh’s population density compounds its problems with poverty. Per capita income is $1,400— around 14 percent of the worldwide average. About 65 percent of the labor force works in agriculture, which accounts for only a fifth of the GDP; most agricultural workers are poor, rural, subsistence farmers, producing only enough for themselves and their families to live on. Like other south Asian agricultural economies, Bangladesh’s is dependent on the monsoon cycle of floods and droughts, which is erratic and costly—but which does result in especially fertile soil. In the years since independence, Bangladesh has made great strides in rice and wheat production, and despite population growth, less of the population is at risk of starvation than it had been.
Industry and infrastructure are limited. There are perennial problems with power and water distribution and telecommunications, and Bangladesh has not been able to take advantage of the adoption of overseas call centers to the extent that India and other Asian countries have. Manufacturing is thus dominated by the textile industry, most of the employees of which are female; this region was known for its silk even centuries ago, and ready-made garments are now the number-one export. The American and European caps on imports of Chinese textiles have helped Bangladesh as well, as have the country’s efforts to stamp out child labor in textile factories (thus avoiding foreign boycotts).
Since 1989, Bangladesh has actively sought foreign investment, and the Board of Investment in theory exists to streamline the process of starting up foreign-owned businesses and other investments. In practice, investment has been slow to come. The country has been the recipient of $30 billion in grants since independence, from the West, from Japan and Saudi Arabia, and from various international development programs. Improvements are slow, but steady, even in a climate of global recession.
- Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State (Westview, 1998);
- Richard Sisson and Leo Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh (University of California Press, 1991).
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