Not all 66 percent urban residents have access to even minimum urban amenitiesMost municipalities formed by merging erstwhile village development committees are considered ‘urban’ despite a severe lack of resources and infrastructure.
Last week the Central Bureau of Statistics published the preliminary data of the national census 2021. Compared to the census of 2011, the population in urban centers in Nepal has risen from 17.07 percent to 66.08 percent, a staggering increase by 49.01 percentage points.
The 2021 census, the 12th iteration since Nepal started national population count in 1911, was first since the county became a federal republic, with seven provinces and 753 local units (wards, rural municipalities, municipalities and metropolitan cities).
“Realistically speaking, though the data says 66 percent of the population resides in urban areas, many urban areas are rural in nature. Can we call such areas urban?” asks Sangeeta Singh, director at Centre for Applied Research and Development (CARD), Institute of Engineering.
The sharp increase in urban populations in the statistics has raised questions about the definition of ‘urban’ spaces in Nepal.
Urban experts say they wonder if 66 percent of the Nepali population has access to amenities that should be guaranteed in urban spaces. According to them, Nepal’s demarcation of urban spaces is concerning, and yet can be a golden opportunity to design eco-cities, if planned efficiently.
In Rukum, Chaurjahari Municipality was declared by merging four erstwhile VDCs (village development committees) – Bijayaswari, Kholagaun, Kotjahari, and Nuwakot – in September 2015, despite a severe lack of resources and urban infrastructure.
“We had nothing back then; no roads, no water resources, no government offices, no physical infrastructure,” says Bishal Sharma, the mayor of Chaurjahari Municipality.
“The ecosystem of this municipality is built upon agriculture and all we had were rural roads. Widening those roads to 8-10 meters meant encroaching upon private agricultural lands. In doing that, the public held extremely negative attitudes to the new infrastructural demands,” explains Sharma. “There were new taxes imposed on the public, all the while the municipality didn’t provide them with the amenities of a municipality.”
National Urban Development Strategy (NUDS) 2017, which was approved by the Cabinet’s Economic and Infrastructure Committee on January 22, 2017 highlights that municipalities in Nepal are de facto urban areas.
There are 293 municipalities in Nepal as of 2021, and all these centers are defined as urban areas.
According to the 2011 census, only 17.1 percent of Nepal’s population resided in 58 designated urban areas. With the addition of 159 municipalities in 2014-15, 40 percent of Nepal’s population resided in 217 designated urban areas.
Experts find that Nepal government’s approach to categorising a space as urban doesn’t meet the criteria outlined by international and national standards.
The UNFPA (1996) has defined an urban area as ‘having an administrative unit, population concentration, the proportion of the population in non-agricultural occupation and availability of infrastructural facilities.’
Over the past four-five years, Chaurjahari Municipality has established its offices and health posts in all the wards and facilitated access of 70% of the residents to clean drinking water in their homes. Despite the inexistence of most urban amenities, Chaurjahari residents have been considered urban since 2015.
“There are various criteria that an urban space should meet—population size, population density, economic activities [non-agricultural based, service oriented, industry, manufacturing], including physical infrastructure [road, water supply, electricity, solid waste management, wastewater management, etc.],” said Singh.
Experts are skeptical whether the government has maintained such criteria in declaring 293 municipalities as urban centers. As opposed to the assessment of whether the (municipal) areas meet the criteria of urban centers, a blanket approach to categorization has been adopted, experts say.
A similar tale was repeated in Syangja district’s Bheerkot Municipality, which was formed by merging a couple of VDCs, despite the absence of basic infrastructure. Even after about five years of being an ‘urban’ center, many parts of the municipality are far behind in accessing amenities.
The declaration of these municipalities as urban, hence seems premature.
“The municipality has undergone a drastic transformation in terms of roads, access to clean drinking water, irrigation, and so on,” says Dipendra KC, Bheerkot Municipality spokesperson. “However, look at ward number 3 and ward number 9 – these wards are villages. How can we say that those residing in those wards are also urban residents?”
This definition of ‘urban area’ has been continuously changing over time and the increase in urban population is a result of “merging rural area (VDCs) but not the result of natural growth” writes Damodar Chapagain, assistant lecturer at Mahendra Ratna Multiple Campus, Ilam in his paper “Present Situation of Urbanization in Nepal”.
“Many such municipalities do not meet the criteria of urban spaces. Many villages in the hills have been categorized as municipalities, and they are not even connected to the national road network,” says Suman Meher Shrestha, an architect and urban planner by profession. “In many of these newly proclaimed urban centers, the economic activities are still based on primitive income generating sources.”
The major economic activities in Chaurjahari are still based on agriculture, corroborating Shrestha’s claims.
“Our provisions are to help the farmers access fertilizers and agricultural tools on time because we rely on agriculture for the economy here,” explains Sharma, the mayor.
This lack of uniformity in defining and demarcating urban areas creates difficulties in designing effective policies. Policies pertaining to rural and urban areas are different in their priorities.
In addition, such demarcation has negative impacts on the policy-design of so-called urban areas. Given the policy needs of rural and urban areas are drastically different, it might further exacerbate the existing lacks in the region.
“Policies for rural and urban areas are very different. While urban centers are focused on making cities sustainable, inclusive, and on managing sectoral housing, rural areas instead focus on subsistence economy, rural assets, livelihood management, culture and tourism and so on,” clarifies Singh. “These two distinct needs of policies in the two spaces can drastically affect the policies that are needed for the so-called urban spaces that are, in fact, rural.”
A day after the census preliminary report was made public, Baburam Bhattarai, a former prime minister, questioned the rural-urban population ratio.
“It is ludicrous to say that 66% of the population – of a country like Nepal, that is underdeveloped in all aspects – is ‘urban’ by including the populations of local units that are municipalities in name only. There are certain criteria that have to be met for a space to be urban – the population density, occupation, physical/economic/social infrastructures. So, let’s correct this!” wrote Bhattarai, who holds a PhD on regional development planning, on Twitter.
Hem Raj Regmi, deputy director general at the Central Bureau of Statistics, however, says they have collected data in the community questionnaire to understand the criteria met by the so-called urban spaces.
“We have asked about 6-8 questions in the community questionnaire pertaining to various details of their community – about various markers of development, infrastructure, disaster management, and so on,” says Regmi.
The bureau plans to publish an analysis of the rural-urban situation in the next seven-eight months.
However, experts also see this as an opportune moment to design the new “urban centers” from scratch.
“The benefit, however, is that while planning these nascent urban centers, the focus can be on designing ecological cities. While this might seem like a drawback, it can also be an opportunity for urban planners to design sustainable and inclusive urban centers from the get go,” explains Singh.