People and Populations
Bengal’s fertile soil has supported large populations for many centuries. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during the period of British rule, the population grew very rapidly. This was not only due to advances in medicine and public health, but because of much immigration into this wealthy region, with its growing number of factories providing plenty of work. By the mid-twentieth century, Calcutta had become one of the largest, and most diverse, cities in the world, with settlers from Britain, other parts of India, the Middle East and China playing a vital part in its economy.
Bengal’s population in the early twentieth century was mainly Muslim (about 55%), although there were many varieties of belief and culture that divided that community. Hindus made up most of the remaining 45%, but they too were divided into different castes, classes and occupations.
By 1947, the population of Bengal had reached about 60 million (about the same as present-day Britain or France). At the time of Partition, about three-fifths of the population (about 35 million) lived in the regions that became East Bengal, and only two-fifths (or 25 million) in West Bengal. But massive migrations between the two parts of Bengal changed this balance. Today about 20% of West Bengal’s populations are Muslims; while under 10% of Bangladesh’s population are Hindus.
The region continues to be one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Bangladesh today has a population of about 160 million, while West Bengal’s population is about half as much, at 80 million.
According to the 2001 census, 283,063 people of Bangladeshi heritage were living in Britain. This amounts to 0.5% of the total population of the UK and 6.1% of the ethnic minority population. Of these, 154,000 people (just over 50%) were born in Bangladesh. It is estimated that 95% of Bengalis in Britain come from the region of Sylhet.
The Bangladeshi population is a young one, with an average age of 18 years (compared to 37 for the White population). Almost 40% of the Bangladeshi population is under the age of 16. This was twice the figure for the White population more generally where only 19% were under the age of 16. Most Bangladeshis were within the 16 to 64 age group (Office for National Statistics, 2002).
Family and household structure:
In 2002, Bangladeshi households were the largest in the UK with an average of 4.7 members. However, there are signs that this situation is changing. In London, for example, the average number of Bangladeshis per household has decreased from 5.4 in 1991 to 4.5 in 2001 and the percentage of Bangladeshi households with more than six people has also decreased from 47% to 30%.
Most adult Bangladeshis are married (74%). Two-thirds of women marry between the ages of 20 and 24 and less than 10% of men and women marry before 20. 88% of Bangladeshi couples have children (compared with 49% of White couples) and over 42% have four or more children (the equivalent figure for White British is 4%)
Only 38% of Bangladeshis own their own homes and the majority of households live in rented social housing (63%). The majority of Bangladeshis (55%) live in purpose-built blocks of flats compared with 33% on average for the wider population.
Bangladeshis in Britain were most likely to be unqualified. Nearly half of Bangladeshi women (49%) and 40% of Bangladeshi men had no qualifications. Lack of educational attainment has contributed to lower paid jobs and poverty.
However, there are signs that this situation is changing fast. In Greater London, the percentage of Bangladeshis aged 16 to 24 who were students was higher than the population as a whole (50% compared with 45%). In 2005-06, 32% of Bangladeshi females and 29% of Bangladeshi males were entering higher education by age 19.