The story the numbers tellThe census has thrown up several questions our policymakers will need to keep in mind in the years to come.
Amish Raj Mulmi
The person who arrived at my doorstep one late evening had a litany of questions for me. How many people live in the house? Where did I live before this? What religion do I practice? What is my mother tongue? If I remember correctly, the enumerator had been allotted a certain number of homes to collect data from on a daily basis for a fortnight, and they had to visit another home before wrapping up for the day.
Now that the 2021 census preliminary report is out, the data seems to vindicate a few prevailing hypotheses, such as Kathmandu being the most populated district and increasing migration from the hills to the plains and outside Nepal. News outlets have focused on our population growth at 0.93 percent per year, which is the lowest in 80 years. For a society like ours that perceives having children as the ultimate goal of life, such concerns about low population growth are not surprising. But it shouldn’t be, especially if one considers that the trend is similar to other South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh. The least developed countries (LDCs) annual population growth rate has been on the decline in the last three decades, although on the whole LDC population grew at 2.3 percent in 2020. Another factor is the decision by families to have fewer children. Today’s average Nepali family size is 4.32, much less than 4.88 as recorded in the previous census, and this is the norm across all provinces.
One argument is that as income levels rise, population growth declines, as seen in several high-income countries today (and in China). There is much literature on the correlation between income growth and the rise in population, but none establishes it firmly. One of the earliest such theories was put forth by the 18th century English cleric Thomas Malthus, who theorised that exponential population growth would lead to a shortage in the food supply, which in turn would lead to starvation and kill off people to bring populations back to a stabilised level, an event known as the Malthusian Catastrophe. Malthusian theory, however, was heavily critiqued on several grounds. For example, "What Malthus did not foresee was that the increasing output of the economy will decouple from the change of the population so that the output available for all will increase over a long period", or that economic output will also increase exponentially as population rises.
However, another paper argues, "Low population growth in high-income countries is likely to create social and economic problems while high population growth in low-income countries may slow their development. International migration could help adjust these imbalances but is opposed by many." Or that countries like Nepal could prosper with low population growth; however, the same paper also argues the effects of population growth on per capita growth will "probably remain highly country specific".
The critical element here is the age structure of our population, the data for which is awaited. The previous census reported 64 percent of Nepal’s population belonged to the working-age (15-65), and a Kantipur editorial posited the figure would now increase to 67 percent. But with high migration rates and low employment possibilities inside the country, can Nepal take advantage of this demographic dividend?
A country on the move
What is equally evident from the preliminary census report is that Nepalis are a people on the move. That approximately 7.5 percent of Nepal’s population currently lives abroad seems to be an underestimation is corroborated by the director-general of the Central Bureau of Statistics. As he argues, several families have moved outside Nepal en masse, and migrant workers move in and out of Nepal depending on their jobs. However, what is clear is that more Nepali women have joined the ranks of those going abroad for better opportunities.
The more interesting bit to me is the out-migration from 32 districts such as Ramechhap (-1.65 percent population growth), Khotang (-1.56 percent), Manang (-1.41 percent) and Bhojpur (-1.32 percent), and the rise in population of districts such as Bhaktapur (3.32 percent), Rupandehi (2.3 percent) and Chitwan (2.1 percent). That these top three districts are all homes to newly developing urban centres such as Butwal and Bharatpur convinces me to argue that people are increasingly leaving the hills for urban centres, with Kathmandu Valley as the first choice failing that, other urban centres.
Of course, as this paper noted in an editorial, the eventual demographic imbalance in favour of the Tarai plains as projected by the census may also result in further political complications on the question of identity and representation. Already some lawmakers are making suggestions to retain hill populations where they are, repeating clichéd takes such as improving education and economic opportunities to reduce migration. There seems to be no fear that motivates politicians as much as disappearing votes. But as it stands, better infrastructure – both physical and social – could be posited as one of the factors motivating migration to the plains. What would be interesting–and I hope the Central Bureau of Statistics can take note–is to learn whether the 2015 earthquakes affected a family’s decision to migrate, and if not, what are the drivers of internal migration.
Because of the delineation of new municipalities, nearly two-thirds of the population is now said to be urbanised. The question, however, is what constitutes an urban area in Nepal, to begin with. The 2015 Constitution does not outline any markers that constitute a municipality, to begin with. There are supposedly some physical infrastructure and population requirements an urban settlement must fulfil to be declared a municipality or more according to the 2017 Local Government Act. Still, there is widespread consensus that the increase in "urban settlements" is the result of political manoeuvring. As this paper reported, several ‘municipalities’ have been declared so by merging former erstwhile village development committees and lacked even basic urban amenities to begin with. As with any short-sighted political decision, this too will result in unexpected blowback in the years to come.
With increasing income levels, urban demographics, and migration rates, the census has thrown up several questions our policymakers will need to keep in mind in the years to come. These numbers will determine Nepal’s future, but only if we pay attention to them. Without doing so, the census will be reduced to another once-in-ten-years exercise and gather dust on the shelves of our ministries just as the thousands of INGO reports over the past several decades do.