Nepalis are voting with their feet

The accelerated mass migration out of rural mountains is proof that federalism is malfunctioning

TREE FARM: Sikles village in Kaski, where trees are now growing out of terrace farms because of depopulation. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Nepal may have defused the population bomb, but its cities and towns are bursting at the seams.

Federalism was supposed to improve rural living standards through more accountable governance. Failure to achieve this has accelerated rural outmigration.

The 2021 census showed that Nepal’s population declined by 10% in the last decade. The total fertility rate has fallen below the 2.1% replacement level, and that could be a problem in the future. But for now, it is the continuous emptying of mountain districts that is assuming crisis proportions.

None of the three levels of government seem to have internalised the gravity of this situation, let alone devised a strategy to reverse the trend.

Most internal migration is to the Tarai, which already has 54% of Nepal’s population. Another 21% lives just in Bagmati Province which includes Kathmandu Valley.

Read also: Letter from Sikles, Kunda Dixit

Nepalis are voting with their feet NT

One-third of Nepal’s population is in rural municipalities, and two-thirds is in urban centres. Three-fourths of Nepalis live in just four of the seven provinces: Kosi, Bagmati, Madhes and Lumbini.

The trend is even more alarming if we look at the data at district and rural municipality levels. Nearly all hill and mountain districts have seen sharp population declines. Some towns have not just added population from the hinterland, but also sucked up its resources.

Municipalities have not been able to keep up with demand for jobs, quality education, affordable healthcare, or water supply.

After the first federal elections to local governments in 2017, there was finally hope that local candidates would be held more accountable because of their proximity to the electorate. The campaign slogan of ‘Singha Darbar in every village’ raised hopes that democracy would finally deliver genuine local development.

Some city dwellers even returned to their ancestral villages. But hopes were soon dashed because grassroots governments once again failed to deliver. Feeling let down once more, people moved from villages to cities, from the mountains to the plains, and from there many continued abroad.

Migration patterns have changed. It is not just young males who are leaving for the cities, entire families are. Houses are padlocked, villages are empty, fields are fallow.

Read also: Eastern Nepal’s depopulating mountains, Gopal Dahal

Made with Flourish

Elected representatives in fancy new municipality offices have not responded appropriately to the enormity of the demographic change taking place.

There have been two elections after the new Constitution in 2017 and 2022, meanwhile internal migration into Kathmandu has increased. More than half the population of Kathmandu Valley was not born there.

There is urban-to-urban migration as people move from cities like Biratnagar, Birganj, Bharatpur to Kathmandu. Five of the municipalities with the highest population growth: Kageswari Manohara, Karkeswar, Nagarjun, Mahalaxmi, and Suryabinayak are all in Kathmandu Valley.

Census data shows where the people have left. Five towns in Gandaki and Sudur Paschim Province have had the most dramatic population declines. Sanfebagar Muncipality in Accham had an annual population decline of 2.55% between 2011-2021. Jamini in Baglung, Galyang in Syangja, and Phalebas in Syangja all lost nearly 2% of their population every year (see map).

Urbanisation is driven by aspiration. People move to where there are opportunities and a better quality of life. The mass movement happening now in Nepal is because local governments have not created good conditions in rural areas.

Read also: The last men standing, Daman Rai

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There is another change sweeping villages in Taplejung and Sankhuwasabha. Although their populations have decreased, the number of households has increased. This indicates a trend in rural areas to live in nuclear families instead of joint ones.

The last census showed that of the 430 rural municipalities in Nepal, 250 had negative growth. In contrast, of the 293 urban centres, 224 saw population increases.

Gandaki Province has the highest rate of outmigration, with 83% of rural municipalities decreasing in population. Only 3% in Madhes Province saw decreases.

More than half of rural municipalities seeing population decline can only mean one thing – Nepalis are voting with their feet. Even though political power was theoretically devolved to municipalities and provinces, they were not allocated sufficient resources, and federal entities in Kathmandu still call the shots.

Biratnagar, Janakpur, Hetauda, Pokhara, Surkhet and Dhangadi were chosen as provincial capitals, and all have seen a surge in population in the past six years.

Perhaps what was needed was not just decentralisation away from Kathmandu, but locating provincial capitals in rural areas to boost job creation, trade and political opportunity.

Read also: Nepalis moving from mountains to plains, Shristi Karki

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