Nepal to conduct census amidst Covid-19 surge

Nepal is being engulfed by a second Covid-19 wave, but that has not deterred the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) as it puts finishing touches to an ambitious National Population and Household Census scheduled for 8-22 June.

CBS has devised three phases of training at the central, provincial and local levels, and has completed the central and provincial briefings. In the final phase, officials trained in previous sessions will instruct 8,000 census supervisors and 39,000 enumerators during week-long sessions in late April and late May respectively.

The data collection will be more comprehensive and detailed, with the use of three separate questionnaires: House and Household Listing, the main questionnaire, and the Community Questionnaire. The main questionnaire with 55 questions will be the longest questionnaire out of any other country that conducts a census, while the Community Questionnaire will be the first of its kind used in a national census.

The census will also make more prominent use of technology in the data collection process with enumerators deployed within Kathmandu Valley set to use electronic tablets to record information.

Each national census since the first one has shown increased diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion and languages spoken. This year’s census is Nepal’s 12th and because of greater social awareness, inclusion and empowerment, the results are expected to reflect the country’s changing socio-political and demographic landscape more accurately, and add to the country’s linguistic, cultural, and ethnic richness.

The first four census from 1911 to 1941 were primarily head-counts conducted to gather data about able-bodied Nepalis who could be sent to fight the British Empire’s wars overseas. However, the censuses since 1952 have documented the country’s changing social demography.

‘The democratic wave in Nepal after 1990 played a major role not only in collecting better census data on ethnic/caste, linguistic and religious groups but these data have also become instrumental in understanding the interethnic and inter-religious relationships among various groups of people,’ writes Dilli Ram Dahal in the 2014 Population Monograph of Nepal.

Nepal’s topographical range and its location astride the Himalaya has given the country ethno-linguistic diversity unparalleled in the world. The first modern census of 1952-54 was also the first to collect data on languages spoken, and all following census has asked respondents their ‘mother tongue’ and their ‘second language’.

The 1952 census put Nepal’s language count at only 44, and the number actually decreased in the three subsequent censuses, to 36 in 1961, then more dramatically to 17 in 1971. In fact, responses to census questionnaires on social demographic data show a direct correlation to Nepal’s political and socio-cultural evolution. For example, the number of languages began to increase from the 1991 census onwards.

“Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, there has been a sharp rise in ethno-linguistic awareness among linguistic minorities, including indigenous peoples about their mother tongues,” writes Yogendra P Yadava in the Population Monograph.

The 2011 census puts the official number of languages at 123. Of them, 19 are non-Nepali languages, some of which include Arabi, Russian, Chinese, Spanish. However, the National Language Commission has identified eight more languages since its establishment in 2016, and this is expected to be reflected in this year’s count.

Yet, even as new languages are identified, some of Nepal’s indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct. The 2011 census identified 37 languages having less than 1,000 speakers as being endangered. Among them, the Dura, Kusunda, and Tillung languages have only one speaker each left, and may not even register in this year’s census.

“The status of Nepal’s languages and linguistic diversity have reflected well in Nepali censuses only during periods of democracy, and not in times of tyranny and autocracy,” explains Lok Bahadur Lopchan of the Nepal Language Commission. Indeed, fluctuations in the language count correspond with major political upheavals in Nepal’s history.

In a bid to better understand Nepal’s linguistic diversity and identify the status of languages spoken, the Commission and CBS have introduced a new question to the language section in the census forms. In addition to ‘mother tongue’ and ‘second language’, respondents this time will also be asked to mention their ‘ancestral’ language.

“Because the language of teaching and communication is predominantly in Nepali, the mother tongue for many people across Nepal’s ethnic communities has become Nepali as well. Adding ancestral language to the questionnaire will help us ascertain which languages have lost speakers,” Lopchan explains.

In fact, Dilli Ram Dahal notes in his analysis that “dominant groups, such as Newa, Magar and Rai are switching over in large numbers to the Nepali language, not only because it is an official language but also because of their day to day interaction with the Nepali language speaking communities.”

“If the respondents answer openly, we might get more accurate data, and there is a possibility that the total number of endangered languages will be double of what it is now,” adds Lopchan.

Meanwhile, data collection in the census could also be affected by an increasing number of inter-ethnic, multi-lingual families as the country goes through a cultural shift.

"We are inherently a patriarchal society, so the data about ancestral language might be dominated by the male side of the family in case of inter-ethnic or inter-caste families, even if the first language the respondent has learned is that of the mother’s,” notes Lopchan. “In such cases, respondents might record their father’s language as the ancestral language and their mother's language as their mother tongue. Or, they might have learned to speak only in Nepali for convenience.”

Unlike fluctuations in data related to language, the number of Nepalis practising various religions has continued to increase ever since Nepal began to keep faith records in the census of 1952/54. The 1952 census recognised only three major religions: Hindu, Buddhist, and Islam. Jainism and Christianity were added to the census in 1961, Kirat in 1991, Sikh and Baha’i in 2001, and Bon and Prakriti Dharma being the latest additions in 2011.

However, even as the absolute number of Nepalis practising various religions increase, the percentage of Nepalis who identify as Hindu has declined over the years from 89% to 81% of the total population. Meanwhile, the percentage of Nepali Christians has continued to increase from zero in 1952 to 1.4% of the population in 2011.

The gradual decline in the percentage of Nepal’s Hindu population has brought to the forefront conversations about religious freedom after the country became secular, but has also been a cause for concern about religious conversion and proselytisation by western and Korean Evangelical groups in recent years.

Revealingly, the 2011 census showed that the number of Nepalis identifying as Christians was 85,000 in urban areas and almost 290,000 in rural areas.

‘As most of Nepali people live in rural areas, it is natural that there are more people following a particular type of religion in rural areas. But it also gives a strong message that rural people could be motivated more easily to change their religion if external factors play a role in following their religious faiths or values,’ writes Dilli Ram Dahal in the Population Monograph.

This also raises concerns about how individual respondents might hesitate to be forthcoming about their religious identity due to a pressure to say they belong to the same faith as their family members, or fear of ostracisation if they admit to following a different religion. But census officials do not believe these issues will affect the accuracy of data this year.

“Religion is an individual choice, and as such, respondents are free to disclose their religion regardless of family or ethnic background,” says Tirtha Raj Chaulagain of the CBS. “Our enumerators are trained to ask questions individually to each member of the household, so we anticipate little error in data as far as religion is concerned.”

CBS has identified 10 major religious groups from the previous census, in addition to having an ‘others’ section. Yet even as data and discourse around religious diversity have increased, there is a distinct lack of conversation surrounding individuals who might be atheist or agnostic. This can be attributed to the intricate links between religion, culture and tradition in Nepali society that informs the everyday lives of Nepalis. Additionally, the reluctance to be open about one’s religious identity might also extend to a disinclination towards disclosing the absence of any religious faith.

“While we do not have a section for such individuals, we do have an ‘others' section, where respondents are free to specify that they do not identify with any religion,” says Chaulagain. “The fact is, if enough respondents had previously specified being atheist or agnostic, we would have coded and categorised it immediately."

Even though an individual or community’s ethnic identity is intricately tied to a sense of linguistic and religious belonging, caste and ethnicity were only included for the first time in the 1991 census, 40 years after Nepal began to keep records of language and religion. Sixty caste or ethnic groups were identified in the 1991 census, 100 in 2001 and 125 in 2011.

“The rise in the consciousness of identity, and the consequent desire to project one’s group as distinctive and unique, has also contributed to the increase in the number of caste and ethnic groups,” writes Pitambar Sharma in his 2014 analysis of the 2011 census, Some Aspects of Nepal’s Social Demography.

In fact, rising ethnic awareness and openness have resulted in a sharp population increase of some ethnic communities like the Kami and Badi that previously went underreported. The Kami population increased by 40.4% from 2001 to 2011, going from almost 0.9million to more than 1.2 million. Meanwhile, the Badi population went from 4,893 in 2001 to 38,603 in 2011, increasing by 678%.

“In the case of Kami, many of them had concealed their own caste identity, putting down a surname of either the high-caste Hindu groups or simply reporting themselves as Dalit, without identifying their own caste in the 2001 census,” writes Dilli Ram Dahal. “Recording of Badi was also the same in the 2001 census. Many of them simply put their family name “Nepali”, and later the CBS labelled them as Dalit or unidentified Dalit.”

Indeed, ethnic and caste groups counted in the ‘other’ category have also decreased over the years, with the numbers going down from more than 800,000 in 1991 to a little more than 100,000 in 2011. This signifies that CBS has been collecting more accurate data and is becoming more inclusive and aware of Nepal’s diverse ethnic landscape.

Meanwhile, internal migration has led to depopulation in the mountains and hills of Nepal in the last decade, with people moving South to the Tarai in search of better opportunities. 'Ethnic groups who have moved away from their native areas were more concentrated in the Tarai areas adjoining their hill habitats,' writes Pitambar Sharma in his analysis. This has made the Tarai more ethnically diverse and more heterogeneous than the hill and mountain populations. In comparison, major Tarai caste/ethnic groups were less mobile, continuing to reside in their native areas.

The effects of urban migration are also clear in cities like Kathmandu, where significant migration by people of other ethnic communities has led to the Newa community no longer remaining a majority in terms of population, according to the 2011 census.

Yet even as Nepalis seek to carve out separate identities in the current socio-cultural climate, studies and experts acknowledge that there is a gap in data due to the absence of extensive surveys to identify Nepal’s distinct ethnic compositions and cultures.

Read also:

Lies, damned lies, and statistics, Ramesh Kumar

Remembering the 1961 census, Bhairab Risal

Shristi Karki


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.

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