Remembering the 1961 census

Silgadi, Doti in the 1960s. Photo: ROUNDS IMAGING SERVICE

Sixty years ago, I arrived at Kolmuda of Kailali district as part of a 14-member team to help conduct the sixth decennial national census in far-western Nepal. It was March 1961, and in those days because of the lack of roads, we had to travel across India to get from one part of Nepal to another. 

The first part of our journey was on the Tribhuvan Highway from Kathmandu to the Indian border. But the newly-built road was blocked by a landslide, and our bus swapped passengers with another bus going to Kathmandu. 

From Dhangadi in the Tarai, we walked up rough trails to Doti, Bajhang, Achham, Bajura and Dadeldhura. Fellow travellers were traders selling ghee and buying salt, spices, and clothes. Far-western Nepal is remote even today, but back then it was at the edge of nowhere. 

There were no lodges or tea houses along the trail, and we often had to camp in the forests and cook food in the clearings. In the Tarai, the jungles were teeming with wildlife and we could hear tigers roaring by night. We lit fires to keep predators away.

After King Mahendra dissolved Parliament and established the Panchayat system in December 1960, former MPs were deployed in different roles across the country. Many of them were appointed to serve as governors -- a strategic move by the king to further weaken the party system. 

But governorship was still a powerful position, so much so that of the only two concrete buildings in Dhangadi in 1961, one was the home of the governor, and the other was the prison.

Silgadi in Doti was still what it looks like today: a ridge-top town with cobblestone streets and traditional houses with slate roofs. Because it had some Newar settlers from Kathmandu Valley, Silgadi had neighbourhoods named Asan and Indrachok.

We set up our census headquarters near the market, next to the prison, in a house we rented for four months. Then, the census work began. Enumerators would leave for their designated areas with data forms and documents. Officer Dharmanath Gajurel, my wife Sushila, and I stayed back at the census office.

Sushila had accompanied me as a representative of the Everest Dialogue Committee which conducted interviews with governors and sent them back to Kathmandu where they would be published in newspapers, or broadcast via Radio Nepal. The governors I met were happy with me because other governors did not get as much media coverage as they did.

We then walked to Dadeldhura and Baitadi to conduct the census with two assistants in tow. I met with Governor Devendra Bahadur Tumbahamphe of Dadeldhura and Governor Satyanarayana Jha of Baitadi and then crossed over to India to get to Darchula, and later Bajhang via Pithoragarh in India. In Bajhang, we met the headmaster of Satyavadi High School, who like many teachers across Nepal at the time, was Indian. 

We even reached the farthest point you could go from Kathmandu in those days: the villages of Gunji, Nabi and Kuti in the disputed Kalapani and Limpiyadhura territory. The fact that the government of Nepal had actually conducted a census there in 1961 has been cited as irrefutable proof that the territory east of the main channel of the Kali River has always been a part of Nepal.

It took us another 15 days to return to Silgadi via Thalara and Khaptad. We also observed the census in southern Doti, which was going smoothly. I am 96 now, but then as a young man, I had no problem walking up and down those rugged and remote mountains.

Sixty years ago, as now, far-western Nepal was far behind the rest of the country. There were few educated people, and health and nutrition levels were dismal. If we saw any white houses with tin roofs, we understood them to be schools.

Teachers from around the villages were deployed as enumerators during the census, but there were not enough schools in the region so recruiting data collectors was a challenge in itself.

Enumerators collected data through household and individual questionnaires and earned four paisa for each person whose particulars they collected. However, it was difficult to find enumerators we could rely on. Some would consider four paisa too little to bother going after every individual, while others would over-count and exaggerate the figures to earn more money. 

My position was equivalent to that of a branch officer, whose salary was Rs225, as I walked across far-western Nepal for the 1961 census.

Bhairav Risal, 96, is a veteran journalist and environmental activist.

Read also: Everybody counts in Nepal, Shristi Karki

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