Nepal in the 2020s


Nepal is stepping up preparations for its 10-year census in 2021, which is slated to be the most hitech in history and will go beyond simply counting the country’s population to surveying households in order to chart the country’s path in the coming decade.

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Enumerators from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) will be using tablets to enter data during a pilot census in 14 districts next month. The actual census in June 2021 is expected to give an accurate picture of Nepal’s demography and how it has progressed in health, education and development.

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For the first time, data will be collected at the lowest administrative unit, the ward, and also include information on housing, migration, jobs and income. The census will cost Rs4.5 billion and employ 43,000 enumerators.

“Previous censuses only went down to the district level, and enumerators used two forms: a short form for every household, and a long form used on every eighth household,” says Bijay Thapa of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is collaborating with the government on the census. “After federalism, local governments also want disaggregated data and we will have detailed information on every household.”

Next year’s exercise will also count the number of old and new buildings and note whether they are residential, official, commercial or unused. It will include a community survey, one of the first in the world, to assess availability of government services, disaster preparedness and access to natural resources.

“This will help us determine if people are making the best use of government services,” says CBS Director Dhundiraj Lamichhane. “Nepal has categorised 276 municipalities as urban, but we do not know if the resources available match the international criteria for urban municipalities. This survey will help us determine that. If successful, it will be a model for other countries.”

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Lamichhane said the questions enumerators will ask have not yet been finalised, but there are demands from various communities to include ones on mother tongue, disabilities and sexual orientation. Activists say there are 900,000 LGBTI people in Nepal, but the 2011 census showed only 1,500 so the figure was not included in the results.

“This time they want more detailed questions to reflect their diversity, but we think it is better to do a separate survey,” says Lamichhane. “Various castes and ethnicities are also demanding to be included, but we will only do so if recommended by relevant government bodies.”

Going by past trends and other sample surveys, experts have already projected results of the 2021. Nepal is expected to continue showing improvements on most indicators, including birth rate, population growth, health and education. However, they say some indicators, like the sex ratio and migration, may not show progress.

One of the reasons Nepal’s population growth rate is low is because of the absentee population: 1.92 million according to the last census. And there is no reason to believe that the percentage of migrants will decrease or even stabilise in next year’s count. However, internal migration is expected to slow because of more education and employment opportunities at local levels.

Nepal’s current sex ratio is 94 males per 100 females,

and the sex ratio at birth is 106 males per 100 females. This is considered normal, since there are usually slightly more male children born than females, but females tend to live longer.

“Female foeticide is growing even though it is illegal. The next census may show a greater ratio of male babies born to female ones, and we estimate the sex ratio at birth to rise to 110 males to 100 females. Additionally, the national average may hide greater discrepancies in certain districts or cities where female foeticide is more rampant, and we need to watch out for that,” explains Tirtha Tamang of UNFPA.

Demographic indicators like birth, fertility and death rates are all set to decrease, which means that Nepal’s population growth rate will continue to slow. The 2021 census is likely to show a wider ‘youth bulge’ in the population pyramid. Although this provides a ‘demographic dividend,’ with a bigger workforce that could lead to a development boom, Nepal must be able to cash in on this window of opportunity in the next 10 years. Given the current quality of governance, experts doubt it will happen.

Nepal’s youth advantage will last till 2047. After that, the country will be grappling with the complications of an ageing society. In fact, Nepal will start losing some of its youth power about 2028, when the population over 65 will be more than 7%. The next decade is key for Nepal to use its demographic dividend to provide jobs at home and boost economic growth.

Despite improvements in education, health, life expectancy and income, the country may not be in a position to make the best of its demographic dividend because of the skewed sex ratio caused by outmigration. According to a report by the National Planning Commission, the country sorely needs to invest in policies that make the best of the potential of youth.

Says Lamichhane at the CBS: “If young Nepalis at the peak of their abilities continue to leave the country, then Nepal will not make great strides in development. In the next decade we need policies to modernise agriculture and improve infrastructure if we want to retain our youth and have them contribute to the country.”

21 of Nepal’s most endangered languages

When Nepal’s last census was published in 2011, language became one of the most hotly-debated indicators. Many doubted that the census accurately reflected the status of Nepal’s languages. This time, the Language Commission is working with the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) to make a more comprehensive tally.

The 2011 census counted 123 languages spoken in Nepal, including foreign languages like English, French, Spanish and Chinese. Also, there was a belief that many people who had forgotten their ancestral language nevertheless registered those languages as their mother tongue, leading to higher numbers of speakers of endangered languages registered than in reality. The Kusunda language, for example, has only two speakers left, but the census records 28.

“The languages should be categorised as foreign and native to Nepal, so that we don’t count European languages as our own,” says Bharat Tripathi of the Language Commission. “Also, the last time there were only two questions asked about language: mother tongue and second language. This time we want to change that to: mother tongue, second language and ancestral language.”

While the CBS is still debating these suggestions, it has agreed to include six more languages newly catalogued by the Language Commission, bringing the total to 129. “We investigated Rana Tharu, Narafu, Chum, Nubri/Lharke, Poike and Serake languages in the past year. Through linguistic methodologies, we have established that they are distinct languages,” says Tripathi. “This year we have received claims from speakers of Marek Yakhya and Walung languages in Taplejung — we are in the process of investigating them.”

These languages are usually spoken by very few people, and are added to the list of endangered languages. The commission has identified 37 languages spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, and placed 21 of them on that list, but there may be many more hidden among less populous communities. The commission is working to document these 21 languages by collecting their grammar, determining their alphabets, writing their language histories and documenting the available folklore.

It is doubtful if all of the 129 languages will survive even till the census in June 2021. But most certainly many will be gone by the 2031 census.