Nepal postpones census amid Covid-19 surge

Nepal’s government decided on Monday to postpone the 12th National Population and Household Census scheduled for 8-22 June this year until further notice, as the country confronts a massive surge of coronavirus cases.

The cabinet decision came as Nepal recorded the highest-ever daily case counts for Covid-19 over the weekend, with 7,211 people testing positive on Sunday from 16,770 PCR and antigen tests, representing a 43% positivity rate.

When the decision came on Monday, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) was on the last leg of its training sessions, having been on the 5th day of a week-long local-level training of 8,000 census supervisors across the country. 

The only step left was to select 39,000 enumerators and train them in late May on how to approach, interact with, and interview people and fill out the questionnaire. 

“Training sessions were ongoing in parts of the country where infection rates are relatively low, with safety protocols,” says Tirtha Raj Chaulagain of CBS.

CBS had devised three phases of training at the central, provincial and local levels ahead of the census. Three program sessions were completed as part of the central-level training in early March, during which 200 officials were brought up to speed to operate as provincial and district officers to be deployed in 87 census offices across the country. 

In early April, CBS officials scattered across the country for the provincial-level briefings to train census instructors.

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Even as Chaulagain was speaking with Nepali Times, Nepal’s National Statistical Council was meeting to discuss recent developments. 

“There is some confusion about the state of affairs right now,” Chaulagain explained. “We have not yet received an official written notice regarding the postponement yet, but we will make any decision public as soon as the meeting of the National Statistical Council concludes.”

In its 110-year history, Nepal’s census has been conducted out-of-schedule once in the 1950s, owing to the 1950 revolution that led to the fall of the Rana autocracy. 

All work related to the census was abandoned in the wake of the revolution, and the census resumed after a gap of more than 10 years in 1952 and ended in 1954, amid a newly democratic political climate. Incidentally, the 1952-54 count also marked the first modern census in Nepal’s history.

The 12th census, first under a federal system, will comprise three separate questionnaires: House and Household Listing, the main questionnaire, and the Community Questionnaire, which are expected to provide more comprehensive and accurate data. 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.

CBS has changed the methods of data collection, making an open call for applications for enumerators and census supervisors from their local communities instead of assigning government school teachers like in the past. Meanwhile, CBS has also planned to make more prominent use of technology in the data collection process with enumerators deployed within Kathmandu Valley to use electronic tablets to record information.

As ambitious as the census was set to be, Chaulagain estimates that postponement will add at least Rs9million more to operational costs.

The 12th census is 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.

When Nepali Times spoke to him in mid-April, Chaulagain had maintained that CBS remained optimistic over conducting the census on time as the cases were low, saying that provided all training sessions were completed, the census could be conducted as planned with proper distancing and safety protocols.

“We are looking at the daily rates and projections and there is no point in taking unnecessary risks right now,” Chaulagain told us on Monday. 

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