Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN) – The number of billion taka bank accounts has risen more than three-fold in recent years, marking a growing gap between rich and poor in the country, officials and experts said.

Figures released by the Bangladesh Bank, the country’s central bank, said as of September 30 last year at least 55 people have deposits worth one billion taka and more, up from 17 two years back.

The country had 37 million bank accounts with a total deposits over BDT 2404 billion, including 98 which contained billion-plus amount, the BB statistics said.

Out of the 98 accounts, 55 belonged to individual and private sector firms with each account holding an average BDT 1.08 billion, the central bank said.

“Most of these account holders reside in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet,” a BB official said.

Former BB chief economist Mustafa K Mujeri said the growing number of billionaires is a disturbing trend and it reflects bulging wealth gap in Bangladesh.

“The data shows that a few people now controls a huge amount of wealth in the country. And their number is rising at a sheer pace,” Mujeri who now chairs Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) told BBN in Dhaka.

Mujeri said while wealth building is a welcome news for any country, it is happening at a time when the number of absolute poor is rising.

Some 40 per cent of the country live below poverty level at the end of 2005, when the country carried out its last household income survey.

Rising food prices have since pushed some four million people to extreme poverty in the next three years, according to a World Bank study.

Mujeri said the government should encourage billion-taka account holders to invest their money in productive sectors, instead of idling away their fortune.

“The authorities should come up with some ideas at how effectively these billions can be invested in sectors like agriculture and small and medium enterprises (SMEs),” he said.

Central bank officials said the national board of revenue (NBR) collects the list of the top account holders to detect whether the deposits match their owners’ tax portfolio.

They said the number of taxpayers in the country would increase substantially if the NBR scrutinises the commercial banks’ deposit statistics properly.

Only 700,000 people paid income taxes last year, which is one of the lowest in the world. The country’s tax-GDP ratio is only 8.5 per cent, the worst in Asia.

According to BB statistics, some 1.2 million account holders have seen their deposits swollen by BDT 100,001 to BDT 200,000 in the year to September 2008, while 4,59,879 account holders deposited between BDT 2,00,001 and BDT 3,00,000 during the period.

BBN/SS/SI/AD-21June09-1:45 pm (BST)