Nepalis moving from mountains to plains

On 27 January, Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) published the preliminary report of the 2021 census, ten years after the last one.

Nepal’s 12th ever census, postponed from its May-June 2021 date due to the Covid-19 second wave last year, was conducted by some 40,000 enumerators and supervisors from 11-25 November.

The new report puts Nepal’s population at 29,192,480, showing that the country’s average annual population growth rate dropped to 0.93%, its lowest recorded. The growth rate was 1.34% in 2011, and had continued to rise since Nepal’s fourth annual census in 1942.

The high, medium, and low variation population projection put out by the CBS in 2014 had estimated that Nepal’s population would cross 30 million in 2021.

Demographic experts say the reason for the decline in population growth is due to many factors, including Nepal’s changing socio-economic status, public health, educational and employment landscapes.

"Nepal's changing socio-economic circumstances along with young Nepalis opting for foreign employment have contributed to the reduction of the fertility rate, which has affected the population growth rate," says Tribhuvan University professor Yogendra B Gurung. Nepal’s total fertility rate is now approaching replacement level — 2.3 children per mother.

Gurung points to other factors pushing Nepali couples to have fewer children over the years: increasing literacy rate especially among young women, living costs, as well as the participation of both parents in the workforce.

Even though foreign employment and its impact on reducing poverty is cited as the main contributors to decreasing population growth, the census report only shows 2,169,478 Nepalis living abroad, which analysts and officials have said is a gross undercount.

The 2011 census put the number of overseas Nepalis at 1.9 million. However, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) has issued more than 3.6 million labour permits since 2011. This does not include data on India, where at least 3 million Nepalis are estimated to work or have settled. Government data also does not include Nepalis who travel overseas using back channels, or the number of Nepali students who have gone abroad.

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Rabindra Mishra of the Bibeksheel Sajha Party weighed in on the significant difference between the census result and the recorded number of Nepalis leaving the country.

‘The government has figures on those leaving the country for foreign employment, but it has no records of those who return,” Mishra wrote on Facebook. ‘Similarly, entire Nepali families that live or have obtained citizenship overseas — largely in Europe, Australia and the USA — have also not been included in the census.’

The undercount has political implications, and Mishra’s party which has got on an anti-secular, anti-federal and pro-monarchy platform, has been batting for overseas Nepalis being allowed to vote in elections back home.

Central Bureau of Statistics head Nebin Lal Shrestha, who himself expressed surprise at the low figure, has agreed about the possibility of there being an undercount because households where all members were abroad were not counted.

“The census data on migration does differ from data released by other institutions during the pandemic,” says Govind Subedi, head of the Central Department of Population Studies at Tribhuvan University.  “The absentee population should have been higher than what was reported.”

Along with international migration, the census report also shows significant internal transmigration from Nepal’s mountains to the plains. Nearly 54% of the country’s population now lives in the Tarai, up from about 50% in 2011 – even though the Tarai makes up only 23% of Nepal’s land area. In fact, 21% of the Nepali population lives in the Madhes Province.

Population density of the Tarai is also steadily rising, reaching 461 people/sq km, compared to only 34 people/sq km in the mountains. In fact, 21% of the Nepali population lives in the eight districts of Madhes Province – where the density is the highest at 636 people/sq km. The total fertility rate in Madhes Province is also much higher than the national average, at 5.15 children per mother.

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The proportion of people living in the mountains has fallen to 40%, and most districts there are seeing a depopulation. In fact, 32 out of Nepal’s 77 districts have seen a negative population growth – in the 2011 census only 27 districts had negative growth.

"The population increase in the Tarai is a reflection of a continuous migration of the Nepali village population to the cities in the plains,” explains Jeevan Baniya, at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility at Social Science Baha.

“The Tarai belt has experienced infrastructure development and connectivity due to the construction of highways,” continues Baniya, “as well as the growth of small cities into mega cities due to increased economic activity influenced by Nepal's remittance economy.”

Nepal’s federal governance structure, and elections at the provincial and local levels in 2017 also spurred Nepalis to move to the Tarai from elsewhere in Nepal.

The number of Nepalis residing in Kathmandu Metropolitan City has decreased from over one million in 2011 to 0.8 million in 2021, declining at an average rate of 1.32% every year.

“With local level elections, Nepalis have recognised the importance of voting, and voting from home,” says Baniya. “When all local levels in the country have representation, there is no need for people to remain in Kathmandu.”

Analysts point to the rising costs of land and real estate, increased living costs, along with the overseas settlement of entire families as having contributed to the decreasing population growth in Kathmandu Valley.

The number of Nepalis moving overseas for non-labour activities, like those seeking permanent residence abroad, are also concentrated in cities within the Bagmati province, says Baniya.

Additionally, demographers note that the Covid-19 pandemic might also be a factor in the movement of people out of densely-packed Kathmandu in the last two years for safety reasons.

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“The pandemic likely caused internal migrants living in Kathmandu to return to their home districts, resulting in a population decrease in the metropolitan area,” says Subedi.

Some demographic experts say that if there has been an undercount of Nepal’s overall population, and of the numbers living abroad, then all other inferences like average annual growth rate, Kathmandu Valley’s population, and even estimates of the country’s ‘youth bulge’ could be inaccurate.

“As far as methodology is concerned, there is room for doubt as to whether enumerators were able to reach every household in the country,” admits   Subedi. “There were many instances of homeowners refusing to give accurate information about family members because of rumours that the information would be used for tax collection.”

In Rasuwa, for instance, data shows that 466 more earthquake-affected families received government aid than the number of families recorded in the census. While the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has signed grant agreements with 12,307 earthquake-affected families, the census recorded 11,841 families residing across the district north of Kathmandu.

Says professor Subedi: “Unless another scientific procedure is conducted, there is little way of knowing about data discrepancies and methodological errors. The only reliable way to figure out exactly how much underestimation took place is for the CBS to conduct a post-enumeration survey, which is typically conducted after the census.”

Read more:

Reaping the demographic dividend, editorial

Demography and democracy, editorial

Shristi Karki


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