Urbanisation Bangladesh has a very long urban history with origin of cities like pundranagara dating back to the third or fourth century BC. In 2001, only about 23% of the national population or more than 28 million people were found to be residents in cities and towns.


Land sketch (Sir Alexander Cunningham) of Mahasthangarh

At the beginning of the last century, in 1901, only 2.43% (or about 0.7 million) of the total population of present Bangladesh areas of British India lived in urban areas. During the first half of the century urban population growth was almost static. In 1941, less than 4% of the population lived in urban centres, and the total urban population was 1.54 million. Urbanisation received impetus after 1947, when the Indian subcontinent became free of the British rule creating the two independent states, India and Pakistan, with East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) as the eastern part of Pakistan. Between 1951-1961, there was a significant growth in urban population (45.11%) compared with the 1941-1951 period (18.38%). Total urban population rose from 1.8 million in 1951 to about 2.6 million in 1961. The important factor behind this rapid growth was the large-scale migration of Muslims from India after 1947, who mostly settled in urban areas.

A phenomenal growth took place during the period from 1961 to 1974, the increase being as high as 137.6%. The growth rate was 6.7% per year during the period as against 3.7% per year in the previous decade. This rapid urban growth can be explained by two factors. First, there was migration from rural to urban areas mainly for employment opportunities. As much as 38% of the total urban population of 1974 is estimated to have come from rural areas. Second, the socio-political changes after the Liberation War 1971 also seem to have considerable influence on urbanisation. The new status of Dhaka as the capital of independent Bangladesh was a major attraction indeed.

Table 1  Growth of National and Urban Population in Bangladesh 1901-2001.

Year Census Total national population (million) Annual growth rate of national population (%) Total urban Population (million) Urban population as % of total population (level of urbanisation) Decadal increase of urban population (%) Annual (exponential growth rate of urban population %)
1901 28.2 - 0.70 2.43 - -
1911 31.65 0.94 0.80 2.54 14.6 1.39
1922 33.25 0.60 0.87 2.61 8.85 0.84
1931 35.60 0.74 1.07 3.01 22.2 2.00
1941 41.99 1.70 1.54 3.66 43.2 3.59
1951 44.17 0.50 1.83 4.34 18.3 1.58
1961 55.22 2.26 2.64 5.19 45.1 3.72
1974 76.37 2.48 6.00 8.87 137.57 6.62
1981 89.91 2.32 13.56 15.54 110.68 10.03
1991 111.45 2.17 22.45 20.15 69.75 5.43
2001 123.1 1.47 28.61 23.10 37.05 3.25

Source Government of Bangladesh: Bangladesh Population Census, 1991. BBS, 2003 1981; Report on Urban Areas, 1997; and Preliminary Report, Population.

In 1974, urban population increased to 8.9% from 5.2% in 1961. In 1981 this rose to 15.5%. The inter-censal change during this period (1974-81) was 111% with annual growth rate of about 10%. Like the previous decade, both migration and natural growth contributed to this growth. But the most important contributory factor for 1974-81 was the redefinition of urban places. The extended definition of an urban area with the inclusion of all 460 Upazila Head Quarters as urban accounted for 30% of the total increase in urban population during the 1974-81 period. During 1981-1991 period, a slower growth of urban population, 5.4%, has been observed compared with the previous decade. At about 20% level of urbanisation the total urban population was 22.45 million in 1991 and at 23.1% level, the total urban population rose to 28.6 million in 2001.

Future urban population growth The size of the present (2010) urban population in Bangladesh is not known exactly. The United Nations Population Fund has estimated the total national population of Bangladesh to be 160 million in 2010. Popular public announcements by national policy makers in the country also quote the current national population figure at 150-160 million. Assuming that 25% people currently live in urban areas, the urban population figure would therefore be 37-40 million in 2010. The future projection of the national population figure estimated for 2051 ranges from a low point of 188.1 million to a medium estimate of 199.3 million and to a high projection of 243.9 million (Islam, 2003). He had projected a high figure of 185.2 million for 2021, which seems to be quite realistic, or even a low estimate if the 2010 population is taken to be 160 million. The population of Bangladesh may be expected to be reaching a plateau by 2051 and then begin to obtain declining trend.

Considering the above projection of total national population for 2021 and 2051, the total urban populations the period times may be assumed to be about 50 million (27%) in 2021 and 80 million (33%) in 2050. The urban population may rise to 120 million (50% of total) in around 2075.

However, change in definition of urban centres, policy intervention in population distribution and climate change effects may radically change the pattern of urban growth in the future. The 50% level may be reached much earlier, possibly well before 2050.

Components of urban growth and reasons for migration The rapid growth of urban population in Bangladesh has taken place during the last three decades because of a number of factors, such as i) high natural increase of native urban population; ii) the territorial extension of existing urban areas, and a change in definition of urban areas, and iii) rural to urban migration.

Migration, of course, has been the most dominant component of urban population growth, which for the national urban population contributed 40% during 1974-81 period. For large cities like Dhaka this share could be even higher, upto 70%.

Both rural 'push' and urban 'pull' factors caused large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. The larger metropolitan centres, more particularly Dhaka, have been the major attractions. Rural impoverishment and landlessness are the major reasons for rural out-migration. Natural calamities, particularly riverbank erosion, often act as triggering factors. The urban pull factors include real or perceived job opportunities and socio-cultural opportunities.

Level of urbanisation by district Urbanisation pattern of a country is a response to the prevailing geographic, economic, social and political forces. Since the forces vary from region to region, the pattern of urbanisation also varies. Urbanisation levels in Bangladesh, in terms of the proportion of urban population by districts, vary quite significantly. In fact, it varies from as low as 7.2% in Satkhira district to more than 90% in Dhaka district. Dhaka district is the most urbanized area of the country. Other than Dhaka, thus the three most urbanized districts are Narayanganj, Chittagong, and Khulna. The proportions of urban population of these three districts were 55.6%, 53.3% and 50.3%, respectively in 2001. Only four districts, such as Bandarban, Khagrachari, Rangamati and Rajshahi had proportion of urban population between 31 and 40% and other three districts (Chuadanga, Pabna and Nawabganj) had 21 to 30% of their population urban.

Most of the districts, 41 out of 64, have low levels of urbanisation, with only 11 to 20% of the population living in urban areas (table 2). There were 11 districts, which had even less than 10% of the population urban. These districts were Patuakhali, Manikganj, Gopalganj, Shariatpur, Netrokona, Satkhira, Joypurhat, Thakurgaon, Naogaon, Gaibandha and Maulvi Bazar. The levels of urbanisation for all 64 districts of Bangladesh are shown in table 2.

Table 2  Distribution of Districts by Level of Urbanisation 200.

Level of urbanisation (% of pop. urban) Number of districts % of districts
<10 11 17.18
11-20 41 64.06
21-30 3 4.68
31-40 4 6.25
41-50 2 3.12
51-60 2 3.12
60> 1 1.56
Total 64 99.97

Source  Based on BBS, 2001.

Distribution of urban population and urban centres The distribution of urban population in the country is uneven. This is due to many reasons, important reasons are size of cities and towns, various geographical factors, pace and pattern of development, development of infrastructure and communication network. The Census Commission of Bangladesh has classified all urban centres in the country into four categories; the Megacity, Statistical Metropolitan Areas (SMAs), Pourashavas and other Urban Areas. A Metropolitan city with population more than 5 million is termed as Megacity. There is only one Megacity in the country, Dhaka, with a population of 10.7 million (in 2010).

Statistical Metropolitan Areas are the City Corporations and their adjoining areas with urban characteristics. On the basis of this definition (BBS 2001) identified three Metropolitan Cities in the country, namely Chittagong (3.39 m), Khulna (1.34 m) and Rajshahi (0.7 m), excluding Dhaka, which is a Megacity.

Table  3 Growth of Urban Centres in  Bangladesh with Population over 0.10 million.

Name of the urban centre Area (sq. km) Population 1991 (million) Population 2001 (million) % of national urban population, 2001 Decadal growth rate
Dhaka SMA 1353 6.844 10.712 37.45 56.52
Chittagong SMA 986 2.348 3.386 11.84 44.17
Khulna SMA 267 1.002 1.341 4.69 33.84
Rajshahi SMA 377 0.545 0.700 2.45 28.55
Sylhet City Corporation 54 0.117 0.320 1.12 172.82
Rangpur Paurashava 58 0.191 0.252 0.88 31.58
Barisal City Corporation 40 0.170 0.225 0.79 31.97
Mymensingh Paurashava 92 0.189 0.210 0.73 11.10
Jessore Paurashava 36 0.140 0.192 0.67 37.60
Nawabganj Paurashava 46 0.131 0.163 0.57 25.14
Bogra Paurashava 22 0.120 0.162 0.57 34.93
Comilla Paurashava 59 0.135 0.161 0.56 18.92
Dinajpur Paurashava 25 0.128 0.156 0.55 22.29
Sirajgangj Paurashava 20 0.108 0.130 0.45 20.22
Jamalpur Paurashava 55 0.104 0.128 0.45 23.66
Madhabdi Paurashava -- 0.000 0.123 0.43 --
Tangial Paurashava 35 0.106 0.119 0.42 12.32
Pabna Paurashava 44 0.103 0.112 0.39 8.89
Naogan Paurashava 37 0.101 0.107 0.37 5.52
B. Baria Paurashava 36 0.109 0.104 0.36 -4.51
Saidpur Paurashava 34 0.105 0.100 0.35 -4.32

Source  BBS 1991, 1997 and 2003.


The next category of urban centres is Pourashava. The areas declared by the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives as Municipal Town or Pourashava have the formal urban status endowed with local governments. During the Census of 2001, there were 223 Pourashavas in the country (in 2010, about 309). During the census period, 11 Pourashavas were included in the four largest cities- Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi. The remaining Pourashavas, 212, had a total population of about 9 million, or 31% of the national urban population.

Other Urban Areas are upazila headquarters or big market places in the rural areas which have not yet been declared as Pourashava during the census operation. The areas which conform with urban characteristics were considered as Other Urban Areas.

In 2001, Bangladesh had one megacity, two millionaire cities and 18 cities with populations between 100,000 and less than one million (table 3). All except two had recorded positive growth of population during 1991-2001.

The urban system in Bangladesh consisted of 522 urban places in 2001. The number was the same in 1991, while it was 491 in 1981. Each of the 64 districts has an urban centre of a reasonable size.

Primacy of Dhaka and Urban Concentration Despite having a wide distribution of urban centers, the Bangladesh urban situation is basically one of primacy and concentration. The capital and the largest city, Dhaka has a very distinctive single city primacy comprising nearly 38% of the total urban population (table 4). Dhaka's status as a primate city is historical and is likely to continue into the future.

Table  4  Primacy of Dhaka in the National and National Urban context.

Year Population (million) % of National Population % of National Urban Population
1974 1.77 3.0 28.2
1981 3.45 3.8 26.0
1991 6.84 5.8 30.5
2001 10.71 8.0 37.4
2005 12.00 8.6 37.5

Source Calculated from BBS, 1994, and estimate for 2005.

The four-largest metropolitan areas - Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi - together possess a much stronger primacy with over 56% of the total urban population of the country. The concentration is also lopsided in terms of economic activities. This is particularly so in the case of Dhaka. For example, of the total power consumption in the country, Dhaka city alone consumes about 50%. A disproportionately large concentration of industrial and various public sector investments have been placed in the area. Despite the government's declared policy of decentralization, an overwhelming concentration of industries has been established in Dhaka city and its immediate surroundings. For instance, more than 75% of the 4,107 export-oriented garment industries in the country are located in the Dhaka city region. Concentration is also obvious in social service sectors, trading, commerce and financial sectors. For example, some 45 of the country's 62 private universities established in the last decade are located in Dhaka City. The situation is also similar with respect to medical facilities. Some degree of concentration is also taking place in the second largest city, Chittagong, with large industrial concentrations and it is because of its function as a port.

In Bangladesh all non-metropolitan cities and towns having a district headquarter status may be considered secondary cities. These generally have populations ranging from 50,000-500,000. In most urban project documents, however, metropolitan areas other than the capital or the primate city have been considered as secondary cities. Urban centres with populations of less than 50,000 have been considered to be rural towns.


Urban Poverty' Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon. However, one may adopt the approach followed by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics for estimating incidence of poverty in Bangladesh. This is based on BBS's Household expenditure survey. Poverty has been endemic in Bangladesh almost historically, in both rural and urban areas. Poverty has been categorized as under Poverty Line I or `Poor' and Poverty Line II or Hardcore Poor or extreme poor.

According to BBS, 81.4% of the urban population was considered to be in the category of Poverty Line I and 44.3% under Poverty Line II, in the year 1973-74, the populations were reduced to 56.0% and 19% respectively in 1985-86. The incidence of poverty was further reduced to 52.5% under Poverty Line I in the 2000 but raised to 25% under Poverty Line II in the same year (table BBS, 2004, SPB).

Table 5  Number and Proportion of Population Below Recommended Calorie Intake and ‘Hard Core’ Poverty Lines by Residence.

colspan="5" | Absolute number of poor (million)
Year Poverty line I Poverty line II
Urban Rural Urban Rural
1981-82 6.4 60.9 3.0 43.1
1983-84 7.1 47.0 3.8 31.3
1985-86 7.0 44.2 2.4 19.1
1988-89 6.3 43.4 3.5 26.0
1991-92 6.8 44.8 3.8 26.5
1995-96 9.6 45.7 5.2 23.9
2000 (P) 13.2 42.6 6.0 18.8
% age of poor
1981-82 66.0 73.8 30.7 52.2
1983-84 66.0 57.0 35.0 38.0
1985-86 56.0 51.0 19.0 22.0
1988-89 47.6 48.0 26.4 28.6
1991-92 46.7 47.8 26.2 28.3
1995-96 49.7 47.1 27.3 24.6
2000 (P) 52.5 44.3 25.0 18.7
  • Figures were estimated on the basis of direct calorie intake method.

Note       (a) Poverty line I = Recommended intake (2122k. cals/day/person.); (b) Poverty line II= ‘Hard core’ Poverty: 1805, k.cals/day/person.

Source  BBS, 2006, (p. 411) Based on: Report of the Bangladesh Household Expenditure Survey 1988-89, 1991-92 and 1995-96, and 2000, BBS.

The absolute number of the urban poor in 2000 have been estimated at 13.2 million under Poverty Line I and 6.0 million under Poverty Line II (Hardcore Poor). Most of the urban poor are found to be living in slum areas, with extremely poor physical environmental conditions.

Consequences of urbanisation Urbanisation worldwide has been found to be an effective engine of economic growth and socio-cultural development. In pure economic terms, urbanisation contributes significantly to the national economy. Although the developing world is less than 40% urban, its urban sector contributes to more than 60% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Bangladesh (with 25% urban population), this sector contributes to more than 65% of the GDP (CUS, 2010 forthcoming). This has grown from as low as 25% in 1972-73 to 45% in 1995-96. This obviously may lead us to conclude that urbanisation on a macro-scale would be beneficial to the economy of Bangladesh. Urbanisation also impacts on social development in terms of higher literacy rate, improvement in the quality of education, and better health facilities. With greater urbanisation, there are also benefits in cultural development.

One visible and positive consequence of the recent rapid urbanisation in Bangladesh, particularly in Dhaka and Chittagong but more so in Dhaka, is the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of young women to be engaged in formal sector industrial employment, primarily in the garment-manufacturing sector. The positive implications of this is manifold, such as in women's empowerment and changes in demographic structure, including balancing the sex ratio in urban areas and also in work fields.

Urban growth, particularly metropolitan growth and the growth of the capital city Dhaka into a megacity, and its increasing contacts with the rest of the world has enhanced opportunities in the intellectual, cultural and sports arena, as are evident in the form of major conferences, seminars and symposia, national and international art exhibitions, musical soirees and concerts and sporting events. While most of these activities are secular, nationalistic, modern and progressive, a parallel development has been taking place in some of the religious-cultural areas with conservative zeal or even outright militant fundamentalism.'

In the last decades democratic processes have taken a much deeper root in Bangladesh then ever before. This is particularly true also of the urban areas as is evident from the recent election to the pourashavas, which for the first time has presented opportunities for women to be elected directly in reserve seats. The city corporations also have experienced democratic elections of people's representatives. This is an unique achievement for any developing country in the world. However, this achievement has remained somewhat limited due to the absence of a greater degree of participation and transparency in affairs of municipal governance. Even within a democratic framework the urban local governments (even in Dhaka) do not enjoy proper autonomy and power. The central control is still overwhelming.

Just as urbanisation brings along economic and social benefits, it also has some negative effects especially when it takes place at a pace as rapid as in Bangladesh.

With rapid urbanisation urban physical expansion takes place fast and more areas in agriculture and forests get converted to built-up areas. However, to absorb the increasing population, encroachment upon agricultural and forest lands or wet lands takes place to an even greater extent but without much proper planning.

Rapid urban growth has made heavy demands on urban utilities and services like electricity, gas, water, sanitation, sewerage, garbage disposal, transport, telephone, cables, and social services like health and education, etc. In each of these sectors scarcity or inadequacy of the service and mismanagement in general have caused crisis situations.

The alarming negative consequence of rapid urbanisation on a massive scale within a city is in the form of degradation of the urban environment, of the kind which is now particularly experienced in Dhaka. Its air, water, and soil have been polluted to a dangerous level. dhaka is considered to be the most polluted megacity in the world. Many of our cities are also unfortunately vulnerable to major natural hazards like flood, riverbank erosion, cyclones and diseases. Rapid growth of the urban population through the migration of the rural poor has made the task of poverty reduction in urban areas more difficult. Although due to governmental and non-governmental interventions the incidence of poverty has come down significantly in urban areas since 1971, it still remains as high as nearly 53%. In absolute term there are 13.20 million urban poor at present. Most of these poor people are unable to afford housing and other socioeconomic needs. The immediate consequence of this is the growth of slums and squatter settlements.

In the face of the rapidly increasing urban poor and equally rapidly growing demand for employment, services, and social benefits, neither the central government nor the local urban authorities are in a position to respond effectively. These governments lack particularly in financial resources and management and technical personnel and skills. Also, the formal private (corporate/modem) sector cannot provide adequate number of jobs to the burgeoning urban population, although it must be noted that in the last twenty years significant expansion has taken place in the formal employment sector in the urban areas (particularly in the garment sector). Due to the inability of the public sector and the formal private sector in absorbing most of the huge urban labor force, we have seen the growth of a vigorous informal private sector (in manufacturing, trade and services, etc.). The virtue of the informal sector is well known elsewhere but not fully understood by our city planners and managers. As a result, a state of tension exists. Both sides (city 'planners and authorities on the one hand, and the informal sector operators on the other) are always in a confrontational mood.

As the twenty-first century is in fact a period of globalisation and free market economy, both positive and negative impacts of such forces are also evident in the case of urban Bangladesh (as well as rural Bangladesh). Metropolitan areas in Bangladesh are serving as peripheries of metropolitan centres or global cities of the developed world. Industries are set up in our cities so that their products can be exported to the developed world. This has a positive impact on creating employment and in enhancing national income, but at the same time this has environmental impacts within and around our cities. There are also negative social consequences (growing inequality, etc.) in our urban society. A fast growing urban affluent class makes heavy demand on the last remaining wetlands in and around Dhaka or hills in Chittagong and Sylhet, and industrial workers and informal sector people with low income are forced to develop their own spontaneous settlements (slums) of extremely poor quality.

Urban development and governance Bangladesh has only a recent record of planned urban development. Efforts were made in the 1960s and the 1970s for a national urban planning system, which would have taken into consideration such aspects as location, size, spacing and function of urban centers; however, this remained a 'paper plan'. Instead, planned development was considered on an individual city basis. The four largest cities were brought under master plans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Each of these cities was given an urban planning and development authority to prepare their master plans and to develop their cities in keeping with such plans. These authorities, rajuk for Dhaka, CDA for Chittagong, KDA for Khulna and RDA for Rajshahi, prepared plans through either UN support or local private consulting groups as their own in-house planning capability was very limited. Development authorities are now able to prepare some local area plans.

Development authorities undertake schemes as recommended in the master plans and are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Housing and Public Works. By contrast, urban local governments, referred to as city corporations, are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. City corporations are responsible for carrying out a variety of functions including conservation, maintenance of roads, street lighting, maintenance of parks and playgrounds, lakes, delivering various social services and so on. There are also a variety of other agencies responsible for different urban services such as: water, sewerage and drainage, transportation, gas, telephones, security, education, health and other services. In fact, in the case of Dhaka, as many as 41 different governmental organisations are involved in the city's planning and development activities. Such a multiplicity of organisations creates problems in coordination and good governance. In the case of Dhaka, the problem has been so serious that a separate committee for good governance and development for the city was established under the Office of the Prime Minister.

For other large cities, coordination and governance problems are generally settled by initiatives of the respective city mayors. For the cities and towns for whom separate urban planning and smaller development bodies do not exist, responsibility for initiating urban plans rests with the city administration, that is, the pourashavas. However, since pourashavas lack their own urban planners, master plans are normally prepared for them by either the Urban Development Directorate (UDD), the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), or by private consultancy firms under the supervision of UDD and LGED. Some support is now being given to 22 such cities in setting up urban planning departments or cells within their offices under the Urban Governance and Infrastructure Improvement Project (UGIIP). [Nazrul Islam]

Bibliography Bangladesh Population Census 2001, Dhaka, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Government of Bangladesh; Statistical Pocketbook, Bangladesh 2004, Dhaka, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Government of Bangladesh; CUS, 2010. (Forthcoming) City Cluster Economic Development in Bangladesh: Dhaka Capital Region. Dhaka: Centre for Urban Studies (CUS); Islam, N, 2002, Urbanisation and Urban Development in Bangladesh on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, edited by A M Chowdhury and Fakrul Alam, Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, pp 561-572; Islam, M.A. 2003, Population Momentum in Bangladesh, in Demographic Dynamics in Bangladesh: Looking at the Larger Picture. Dhaka: Centre for Policy Dialogues, UNFPA and Pathok Shamabesh, pp 1-21.