Counting on Nepal

Nepal’s most ambitious census yet fell short of being an accurate representation of the country

After much delay, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal on 24 March made public the full report of Nepal’s 2021 National Population and Housing Census.

The country’s first official census was conducted in 1911, primarily to identify Nepal’s able-bodied population so the Rana rulers at the time knew the ‘stock’ of able bodied youth who could be conscripted to fight for the British in World War I.

Over the last century, each census has documented Nepal’s demographic, economic, socio-cultural, and technological history and changes. 

The 12th national census, Nepal’s most ambitious yet, reflects how rapidly the country’s socio-cultural, economic, and demographic substrate is changing. The National Statistics Office (formerly the Central Bureau of Statistics) made an attempt to be inclusive in the data collection this time to varying degrees of success.

Enumerators were selected from local communities with knowledge of languages, 50% of them were women, and included people from the Dalit and minority ethnic communities, as well as people with disabilities. 

The census puts Nepal’s population at 29,164,578, with the annual growth rate at 0.92% — down from 1.35% in 2011. There are 95.59 males for 100 females. More than 2 million people live in Kathmandu, the most populated district.  

Population growth rate 1911-2021
Graph: Nepali Times Graphics

The census has also revealed that more than half of Nepal’s population lives in the Tarai, while only 6.08% of Nepalis live in the high mountains. It shows significant internal transmigration from Nepal’s mountains to the plains.

This is a reflection of the infrastructure development and increased connectivity in the Tarai, which has experienced the expansion of small towns into urban conglomerations. 

But the Tarai is now bursting at the seams: fertile farms are being overrun by urban sprawl, there is worsening water scarcity, and pollution has made the cities unliveable. 

Even so, half of Nepal’s economically active population is still primarily involved in agriculture. But farming contributes only 23.9% to Nepal’s GDP, according to the 2021/22 Current Macroeconomic and Financial Situation of Nepal published by Nepal Rastra Bank. 

Remittance is clearly running the country, but it is vulnerable to geopolitical tensions, and other global crises. Nepal’s over-reliance on migrant labour was especially clear during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The census also shows that women have been making significant progress socio-economically. Nearly 24% of the total households now have ownership of land or a housing unit or both in the name of a female. One-third of all households are female headed, up by 5.82% since 2011. Women also own 45% of small-scale enterprises because of government financing for women entrepreneurs.

Elsewhere, malpractices like child marriage still persist: 7% of Nepalis still get married for the first time between 10-14 years. 

While the census provides valuable demographic data, there are some questions about the accuracy — especially about the diaspora. The census says Nepal’s absentee population stands at more than 2.1 million, but this appears to be a gross undercount. 

More than 4.7 million Nepalis have sought labour permits since 2008. While many of them have obviously returned home, 1.8 million Nepalis have renewed their labour approvals since 2011, with an additional 348,867 Nepalis seeking labour permits during the 2021/22 fiscal year. 

This count does not include Nepalis who have migrated to work in India, where Nepalis do not require a labour permit, nor does it encompass hundreds of thousands of Nepali students who have left to work and study abroad.

Census 2021
Graph: Nepali Times Graphics

The 2021 census sought data about Nepal’s sexual and gender minorities by including an ‘other’ option alongside the male and female options under gender. But this attempt at inclusivity shows a lack of awareness about sexual and gender minorities because the ‘other’ option fails to distinguish between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and mixes them all up. 

Moreover, the ‘other’ option has only been limited to the house and household listing, and not the main questionnaire, which only included sexes assigned at birth. 

While the National Statistics Office did consult with LGBTQIA+ groups to include the question on the census, activists as well as members of the community have said that the question showed a lack of understanding about sexuality and gender, and any data collected through the question would not be completely accurate. 

Indeed, 2,928 Nepalis (0.01% of the population) identified as ‘other’ gender on the house and household listing, cannot be an accurate representation.

The census results do not disaggregate ethnicity and religion. Some anti-secular political parties see a conspiracy in hiding the rising population of Christians due to proselytisation. The census office, however, says the breakdown was not possible because of confusion over respondents who said they were from unlisted ethnicities or faiths.

Shristi Karki

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