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Nepal’s decennial census needs a rethink

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Nepal’s decennial census needs a rethink

Experts say the government ought to work on making the current census system more efficient and technology-friendly. At the same time, it should also prepare for an alternative

Nepal’s decennial census has been taking place since 1911, with 2021 marking the 12th one. The census should have been begun in June this year but was delayed by a few months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Central Bureau of Statics (CBS) kicked off the national population census program in the second week of September. In the first phase, it completed enlisting households, and the second phase aimed at collecting population data door-to-door will commence on November 11. It will take at least another six months to process the final census data, according to CBS officials.

Organizing a census every 10 years is an international practice, and prescribed both by the United Nations and the national constitution. Article 281 of the constitution says: “The Government of Nepal shall make appraisal and review of the implementation of special rights of the women and Dalit community and impacts thereof, based on human development index, concurrently with a national census to be held in every 10 years.”

As the 2021 census is underway, there are deliberations among policy experts and government officials that time may be ripe for a reform of the current census system.

Many countries are switching to alternatives, which have also been recognized by the United Nations. In Nepal’s context, there haven’t been any such initiations. Even within the current decennial census, modern technology could be used to make data-collection more efficient and effective. Senior CBS officials concede that there has been little or no effort in changing the traditional system.  

As the administrative data system is mismanaged, CBS is compelled to collect all required data by preparing a long list of questions.

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Hem Raj Regmi, deputy director general at CBS, terms Nepal’s census system ‘unscientific’ and ‘overburdened’. “In other countries, hardly 15-20 questions are asked during the census, but we have prepared 80 questions,” he says. “This is because our permanent administrative bodies don’t have any organized data on their respective areas.”

Experts and officials say the government ought to work on making the current census system more efficient and technology-friendly. At the same time, the government should prepare for an alternative.

Why switch?

As the country has already adopted a three-tier governance system, local governments which enjoy both resources and rights, according to experts, should be empowered to collect data regularly. The current untidy process which takes months to produce the final result should be changed. As things stand, provincial and local governments are dependent on the CBS to get the data of their area.  

The current method of the census is also costly. According to the CBS, the 2021 census will cost over Rs 4 billion, an increase of 233 percent compared to the previous one in 2011. More than 70 percent of the budget would be spent on salaries and perks of census staff as they need to reach an estimated seven million households across the country. According to Regmi, the expenditure is likely to exceed the given budget.

Rudra Suwal, senior economist and former deputy director general at CBS, says census costs will further increase in coming decades, and thus the government should start searching for options.

Planners, policymakers, political parties, and other stakeholders need up-to-date data to formulate and execute policies and plans. Another vital use of census data is while delineating electoral constituencies based on geography and population. The data from the 2011 census is still being used, and the new data being collected now will be used at least until 2032.

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The current data collection process is time-consuming and there are reliability issues as well. During the long process (from filling of forms to analyzing data), errors could find their way into the system as all documents are hand-written, says Suwal. (Albeit, from this time, CBS staff have started using tablet computers in a few districts.) Moreover, to collect household data, surveyors have to reach every door, and even then they may not find anyone home.

Right time

As the country has already adopted a federal system and provincial and local governments are in place, experts suggest local governments conduct census on a daily basis.

Such a process has already been recognized by the UN, and some countries are practicing it, says Suwal.  “Every day, we get updated information on the population, which is known as vital registration. Norway and Denmark don’t conduct any census as their vital registrations serve the purpose.”

“Now that internet and technology are also widely available in Nepal, we too can shift to vital registration,” Suwal adds. To fully switch to vital registrations, according to officials, the government’s regular administrative bodies must be empowered to collect the data of their respective areas.

For example, the Ministry of Land Reform and Management maintains data on women’s land ownership, but the CBS is also collecting such data through the census. “The current census is an onerous and costly affair. But before choosing an alternative system we need to develop a system of collecting data from our administrative bodies at all three levels of government,” says Regmi.

According to him, more and more categories of data are being collected during the census to fulfill Nepal’s international obligations, but there has been little progress in making the process more efficient.