Everybody counts in Nepal
As Nepal prepares for the 12th National Population and Household Census, there is much happening behind the scenes before thousands of enumerators fan out across the country knocking door-to-door.
Scheduled for 8-22 June, this is the first census under a federal system and the most inclusive and ambitious since the first count was done in 1911.
Since the census happens once every 10 years, those involved are usually new and need extensive training. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has devised three levels of training at the central, provincial and local levels.
Three program sessions were completed as part of the central-level training in early March, during which 200 officials were brought up to speed to operate as provincial and district officers. They will be deployed in 87 census offices across Nepal. At present, CBS officials are on the last leg of a week-long, provincial-level training session for instructors countrywide.
The instructors will in turn train the enumerators and census supervisors, passing on skills on how to approach, interact with, and interview people and fill out the questionnaire.
To improve the process of data collection, CBS has also changed the method of collating information this time around. Instead of just assigning government school teachers for data collection as was the practice in the past, an open call for applications for enumerators and census supervisors was made.
“We had been having discussions for a long time about the need to mobilise educated young Nepalis around the country to help with data collection,” says Tirtha Raj Chaulagain, information officer at the CBS. “More than 120,000 people have responded to our request to apply, and there is bound to be a lot more applicants because there is still time until the application deadline.”
The CBS now faces the task of vetting applicants and selecting 39,000 enumerators and 8,000 census supervisors. Those who have completed high school are eligible to apply for ‘enumerator’ while those with a bachelor’s degree can apply to become ‘census supervisors’. The age limit caps off at 40 for male applicants and 45 for female applicants.
The data collection itself is set to be more comprehensive and detailed, with the use of three separate questionnaires.
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“Nepal will have the longest census questionnaire out of any other country in the world that conducts a census,” says Chaulagain. “Census questionnaires elsewhere in the world generally have 20 questions on average. Ours will have 55.”
The first pilot survey of House and Household Listing will be completed in May, which will collect household and livestock data. For gender identity, the option for ‘Other’ was introduced for the first time in the last census in 2011. Officials say they are preparing to note that survey provides space for individual conversations and safe space for gender minorities.
The second phase will begin after the responses of the first one has been analysed. This will allow time for the CBS to conduct an entirely different survey depending on the data that they receive.
The main questionnaire will have 55 questions related to family resources, property ownership and income. Other details related to language, religion, ethnic identity, educational background and disability will also be part of this section. The main questionnaire will have 8 questions related to head count of family members living and working overseas.
Two new parameters have been added to the main questionnaire, one being ancestral language, and another a question about whether children under 5 years of age in any given household have birth certificates or not.
The third part of the census will be the Community Questionnaire, the first of its kind used in a national census. Information from every ward in the country, ranging from the demographic structure of each community to its access to government services, development infrastructure, national resources, and disaster preparedness will go into this.
Among all the firsts happening this time, another one of them is the documentation of the existing infrastructure. Count of buildings, along with information indicating their use and purpose is a part of the questionnaire. There are questions that will help differentiate between villages and cities, eventually contributing to mapping the degree of urbanisation of each ward.
The census will also make a more prominent use of technology in the data collection process this time around. Enumerators deployed within Kathmandu Valley will use electronic tablets to collect data, while paper-based questionnaires will be used in the rest of the country. Nepal’s diplomatic missions around the world will participate in an e-census by responding online.
Scholars and population experts note that this year’s census is going to be the most inclusive and accurate census in Nepal’s history.
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“Not only are the questionnaires themselves more inclusive of Nepal’s diverse communities, but the operational modality itself has changed. The members of civil society and other concerned organisations will be able to directly participate in the data collection process,” says Yogendra B Gurung, PhD, who teaches at the Tribhuvan University.
CBS has also adopted the motto, ‘My Census, My Participation’, to reflect the level of interaction this census is expected to engage the citizens in.
“Potential enumerators and supervisors will be selected based on which communities they belong to and what languages they speak because that makes a big difference in their ability to interact with a diverse range of people across different communities,” explains Tirtha Raj Chaulagain.
The census results are expected to reflect the country’s changing socio-political and demographic landscape more accurately. The study is expected tol provide more accurate data on the increasing urban-rural divide.
“All levels of our government and our civil society have felt the need and are waiting for new data, as old data and statistics are outdated and of little use under the federal system,” says Gurung. “With the data collection parameters becoming so comprehensive, there can be no doubt about the quality of the results, provided that the data is managed in an efficient manner.”
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A century of census
Although official accounts document the first Nepal census in 1911, there have been claims and accounts of Jang Bahadur Rana conducting a headcount after returning from the UK in 1850.
In fact, Volume 1 of the 2014 Population Monograph of Nepal published by the National Planning Commission and the Central Bureau of Statistics mentions head-counts, counting households, stone taps, paatis, and temples at various points in history before and during the prime ministership of Bhimsen Thapa from 1806 to 1837.
The first official census of Nepal, however, was conducted in 1911 following an Istihaar announcement published in 1910 by Chandra Sumsher Rana’s government.
“Nepal’s administration was very much influenced by British colonial power, and so the census was conducted as much as an attempt to follow in their footsteps as it was to identify Nepal’s able-bodied, working population in order to find out the number of youths who could be conscripted into the British Indian Army amid a looming political crisis in Europe,” says researcher Sanjay Sharma.
The results of the 1911 census put Nepal’s population at a little over 5.64 million, with most Nepalis living in the mid-mountains. That number would decrease by almost 65,000 people to 5.57 million in the 1920 census, with the decrease attributed to a significant loss of Nepali lives in World War I, the 1917 influenza epidemic, as well as out-migration. The 1930 census showed a further decrease to 5.53 million, but this could also be due to counting inaccuracies.
In his 2014 book, One Hundred Years of Census-Taking, statistician Tunga Shiromani Bastola writes, ‘The absence of a large number of young males from the country and the death of a large number of them during the war might have lowered the fertility and growth of population in the Hill region.’
Indeed, Nepal’s mid-mountains had lost much of its population after the war, with some ethnic communities like the Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu which were preferred by the British as Nepal’s ‘martial races’ suffering more significant losses than others.
“Data about ethnicity was not included in earlier censuses, so it isn’t quite possible to say exactly which ethnic communities were most affected. But colonial British policy was to hire the Gurung and Magar people from the western hills and the Rai and Limbu people from eastern Nepal, so these communities might have been affected disproportionately to other Nepalis,” explains Sharma. “Moreover, some battalions were also comprised of Chhetris, so it can be assumed that these five ethnic communities were the most affected by the war.”
The 1920 census thus also included data of injured and disabled Nepalis in an attempt to quantify the impact of the First World War. Since the war in Europe had ended by then, however, the 1920 census was also aimed at preparing an inventory of slaves by sex in Nepal, called Kamara-Kamari, a system that was abolished in 1925.
The population would further decrease by 41,000 according to the results of the 1930 census, with a sharp decline in the population of Kathmandu valley. The reason for the decrease has been attributed to undercounting at a time when young Nepalis feared the census was being conducted for the purpose of conscription as tensions rose between Nepal and Tibet, and war looked imminent. The population would bounce back by the next census in 1941, showing an increase for the first time since Nepal began conducting censuses.
After the 1950 revolution that led to the fall of the Rana autocracy, and much of the work related to the census was abandoned in the wake of Nepal’s newly democratic political climate. The census, therefore, began after a gap of more than 10 years in 1952, ending in 1954.
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This count also marked the first modern census in Nepal’s history, what Bastola has characterises in his book, as ‘an endeavour to collect internationally comparable data’.
Around 17,000 enumerators were deployed across Nepal to collect demographic data. Language and religion were also added to the questionnaire for the first time in 1952.
Ten years later, the 1961 census was the first one conducted by Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics which was established in 1959. The results took four-and-a-half years to be published, and established the tradition of a decennial census in Nepal.
Nepal was now in the Panchayat era, and the 1971 census marked a huge technological leap with the advent of an electronic data processing system with early computers. Meanwhile, the 1981 census introduced a ‘Post-enumeration quality check survey’ (PES) in an attempt to check the accuracy of the data.
Journalist Mohan Mainali worked as an assistant census supervisor in Taplejung during the 1981 census, having just completed his SLC exams at age 17. During three weeks in March 1981, he and an assistant travelled across two village Panchayats in Taplejung to conduct the Household Schedule. The Assistant Supervisor would conduct the household schedule while enumerators would conduct the individual schedule.
“The questionnaires we had to carry were long and heavy,” Mainali recalled. “It would sometimes take more than an hour to travel just from one household to another, since there were no roads connecting villages back then. There also was the possibility of rain, so we also had to protect the questionnaires.”
Mainali describes the cultural climate at the time that posed challenges in conducting an accurate household count. “The men would be away from most households, and we would need to interview the women. Since the head of the households were men, we would ask the women for their husbands’ names, but they would be reluctant to utter the name of their spouses, such was the tradition in rural Nepal,” he says. “This and other factors prevented us from getting accurate counts.”
Mainali also remembers how personal motivations affected data collection. “An enumerator would earn 20 paisa for data collected on each individual and often, they would over-count and exaggerate data to earn more money,” Mainali told Nepali Times. “There were significant discrepancies between the population data collected in the household schedule and the individual schedule, which resulted in us having to redo the individual questionnaires.”
The 1991 census, the last census of the 20th century, identified 60 castes and ethnic groups for the first time and employed school teachers as enumerators for the first time, as well. The 2001 census was conducted amidst a period of political turmoil in the aftermath of the Royal Palace massacre and the middle of an armed insurgency. It used a combined data collection method of complete and sample enumeration and adopted multimedia platforms for result dissemination.
‘The 2011 census … included census publicity in local languages, maximum involvement of female interviewers, and the involvement of enumerators from different caste and ethnic groups,’ writes Bastola in his book.
By this time, Nepal’s population had surpassed the 26 million mark, a 370% increase in a century. A century after the first census, therefore, Nepal’s 2011 census served as numeric and demographic documentation of Nepal’s historic political and socio-cultural changes.
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Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.