Bangladesh’s heavy dependence on agriculture has long contributed to seasonal unemployment among rural farmworkers, as well as to a generally low standard of living in many areas. To counteract this imbalance, a policy of industrialization was adopted in the mid-20th century. During the period of Pakistani administration (1947–71), priority was given to industries based on indigenous raw materials such as jute, cotton, hides, and skins. The principle of free enterprise in the private sector was accepted, subject to certain conditions, including the national ownership of public utilities. The industrial policy also aimed to develop the production of consumer goods as quickly as possible in order to avoid dependence on imports.
Bangladesh has remained largely agricultural, with nearly half the population employed in this sector in the early 21st century. Rice is the predominant agricultural product, but jute and tea, both of which are key sources of foreign exchange, also are important. Indeed, the country is one of the world’s leading suppliers of raw jute. Other major agricultural products include wheat; pulses, such as peas, beans, and lentils; sweet potatoes; oilseeds and spices of various kinds; sugarcane; tobacco; and fruits, such as bananas, mangoes, and pineapples. The country also is a leading producer of goat milk and goat meat.
Agriculture was at one time wholly dependent upon the vagaries of the monsoon; a poor monsoon always meant poor harvests and the threat of famine. To reduce the risk of crop failure as a result of such adverse weather conditions, a number of irrigation projects—including the construction of dams—have been undertaken to control floods and to conserve rainwater for use in the dry months. Among the most important of these initiatives have been the Karnaphuli Multipurpose Project in the southeast, the Tista Barrage Project in the north, and the Ganges-Kabadak Project, to serve the southwestern part of the country. Economic planning has encouraged double and triple cropping, intercropping, and the increased use of fertilizers.
The rivers of Bangladesh are particularly amenable to breeding and raising fish, and aquaculture is the source of more than two-fifths of the country’s fish yield. However, the rivers and seacoast also offer opportunities for open-water fishing, mostly in the estuaries of the Bay of Bengal. Among the varieties of fish caught are the marine rupchanda, or pomfret, and the freshwater hilsa, a relative of the shad.
Central to the country’s transportation system are networks of waterways, roads, and railways, the last built mostly during British rule. Inland waterways are important, providing low-cost transport and access to areas where land transport would be costly. They carry most of the domestic and foreign cargo. Chief seaports are Chittagong and Mongla, and there are international airports at Dhaka and Chittagong, as well as several other airports offering domestic service.
The forms of transport used on Bangladesh’s roads range from automobiles and buses to the bullock cart. Two-wheeled horse-drawn jigs and bullock carts are still used, primarily in the north in Rajshahi. Town and city dwellers both rely largely on the cycle rickshaw and on two types of three-wheeled vehicles, known locally as auto and tempo. The lightweight cycle rickshaw, which can easily be used on unpaved roads, is the most popular vehicle in towns and villages. The annual inundations that submerge most of the rural roads necessitate the use of so-called country boats—flat wooden boats that are hand-propelled by means of poles or long paddles.