Lies and damned lies

Going by official statistics, Nepal’s economy is doing splendidly. The economy grew at 2.27%, not bad considering that has been battered for the past eight months by Covid-19. 

Every expert had predicted that Nepal’s remittances would go down with the pandemic, with the Asian Development Bank even putting a precise figure: a decrease of 28.7%. But it actually went up by 8.1% in July-September compared to the same months last year. 

Inflation is holding steady at 4.5% The balance of payments is Rs68 billion in the positive. Nepal’s hard currency reserves have hit a record-breaking $12.2 billion.

The Ministry of Health’s statistics show that 1,004 people have died so far from the coronavirus. But the Nepal Army says it has cremated and buried more than 1,400, the mortality totals at hospitals do not add up, and no one has bothered to count those who have died during isolation at home. 

Heat map of Nepal's Covid-19 hotspots, Sonia Awale

The total number of positive Covid-19 cases in the country is now nearing 180,000, but the number is probably many times higher. That figure is just among those who tested. The Ministry of Health has an exact number for those who have recovered: 137,992. But who is counting those who have stopped quarantining? 

Since conclusions can be subjective, we rely on statistics to plan. But what if the figures are distorted or wrong? After all, statistics can be bent any which way to suit any argument.

Economic indicators are designed for ‘normal’ times, not when the world goes upside down. Extraordinary circumstances need more than figures for GDP per capita and annual economic growth. National averages distort the reality: you could have one foot in the oven and another in an ice bucket and say that on average you are comfortable.

Nepal’s macroeconomic picture may look rosy, but the ground reality is different. By themselves the numbers may be right, but they do not reflect the overall outlook for the economy. 

Nepal plans to revive economy hit by Covid-19, Nepali Times

Enterprises have gone out of business, millions have lost their jobs and sunk below the poverty line. Many middle class families have lost all their savings to pay hospitals for treating relatives with Covid-19. There are no official statistics on them.

Official figures show that imports are down and the balance of payments is looking healthy, but domestic production is nearly zero. Pre-Dasain remittances may have gone up, but nearly 200,000 Nepali migrant workers are backlogged and have not been able to leave. Tens of thousands of workers and their families have gone back to India because of lack of jobs here, and paradoxically many Indian workers have streamed back to ply their trades in Nepal’s cities. 

It is the Central Bureau of Statistics that is supposed to keep track of economic activity, but its figures show that Nepal is not in an economic recession even though there are no accurate numbers for economic growth for the last two quarters to base that assumption on. 

The Nepal Labour Survey of 2018 shows there are 7 million people employed in Nepal, and of these two-thirds are in the informal sector. We have no idea what has become of them. We can only guess that most have no income, but there are no figures. You can only solve a problem if you know there is a problem.

Pre-pandemic figures show 17% of the population living below the poverty line. 

Window on the future, Nepali Times

Informally, economists estimate that one-third of Nepalis have now been pushed below the poverty line. But that is just a guesstimate. There are no surveys to show how many people from which sectors lost their income. Just like with Covid-19 tests and treatment, the government is telling citizens most at risk to fend for themselves.

A 2016 Population and Health Survey showed that half of Nepal’s population suffered from food insecurity, with 10% of families facing chronic food shortage. Eight months into the pandemic, aside from sample surveys by WFP and UNICEF, we do not know for sure the scale of the nutrition crisis.

Without these statistics, the already inadequate relief targetted for the most vulnerable will be side tracked by the politically connected. Which is what is happening. In the past eight years, the government has not even been able to identify the poorest families.

Prime Minister K P Oli, preoccupied with a perpetual power struggle with his party nemesis Pushpa Kamal Dahal, relies on incomplete statistics to declare that Nepal is not in an economic crisis. You cannot wake up someone who is pretending to sleep.

Ramesh Kumar

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