Nepal has been carrying out decennial population census since 1911, with the next one, the country’s 12th, due in June 2021. The body mandated to conduct it is the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), a government agency under the National Planning Commission. Bureau officials say they are working on war-footing to make the census possible, yet it’s a tough task in the middle of a pandemic. And will the census also include Kalapani? Kamal Dev Bhattarai spoke to Rudra Suwal, senior economist and former CBS Deputy Director General.
What is the importance of census?
There are multiple dimensions to and benefits of census. First, census is a constitutional obligation as it is on the basis of population that electoral constituencies and number of electoral candidates are fixed. Second, the census provides a complete picture of the country’s socio-economic and statistical status. Census is the only way to get a picture of each and every household and reflects the country’s social and economic conditions.
Third, census is a key guiding document for other sectoral research, study, and analysis. Fourth, census serves as a key document for policy and programs. Fifth, it is important for comparative evaluation of social, economic and other conditions between different countries.
How has Covid-19 affected our census preparations?
As per my knowledge, all activities are on schedule. The CBS has completed a pilot census. Even if one activity is interrupted the entire process will be affected. But if we don’t have more of the kind of strict lockdowns we did earlier, I think the census can be completed within the stipulated timeframe.
But another lockdown might affect our tight schedule. The key principle of census is that it has to be done at a fixed time, June of every tenth year in our case. If we miss this timeline, we cannot have a comparable data. The delay will affect future censuses. There have been instances of delay. For example, Pakistan could not hold its census for 18 years due to terrorist activities. Having a fixed time is vital for effective comparison.
Can you give us an overview of census-taking exercise in Nepal?
Nepal started taking census in 1911, all of 110 years ago. Before that, there was the tradition of conducting census in certain areas but not in the whole country. However, the first Nepali census process that adhered to international standards and practices was started in 1952 and took two years to complete. That was the first modernized census held by adopting scientific methods.
Why is census held in every 10 years?
It is an international practice. The UN sets certain standards on how and when countries can hold census. It wants to apply the same standards across the globe and has developed set guidelines for the same purpose. We have to follow those guidelines. Nepal has also been organizing census every 10 years.
If countries do not follow the set guidelines, we cannot have comparable data. For example, we cannot compare the populations of two countries if they do not follow same census criteria. The UN, for instance, clearly defines what constitutes a family—those who live together and share a kitchen—which should be followed by all countries.
Do we have required manpower?
Since we have been holding census for over 110 years, this is no longer a problem. That was not the case in the initial years. For example, before conducting the 1952 census, the CBS staffs had to go to India for training. Even now, the UN trains officials from all member states, and informs them about emerging issues. It trains you on developing questionnaire and analyzing data. But like I said, these days, we don’t need much training due to our long experience.
What are the concerns of the international community on the census process in Nepal?
This area falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Even today, the UNFPA provides Nepal with technical support when required. In the past, it even offered us financial help. But now Nepal can fund its own census.
Donor agencies and international community want to ensure that questionnaires meet international standards. Sometimes, the international community wants to focus on some specific class, community, or area. For example, LGBTI is one area of international concern. CBS also seeks feedback from international agencies on emerging issues, which is natural as well.
How inclusive is our census process?
This is an evolving process. When we talk of inclusion, we need to consider factors like gender, castes, minority groups, etc. We started collecting data on caste and ethnicity from 1990s to ensure broad representation. The latest issue, of course, is LGBTI, in line with the global trend. The basic principle of census is that the questionnaire should be simple and easily understood. It is also difficult to collect information on some sensitive issue, for instance reproductive health of women. So we avoid them. Yet our priority is to dig out as much data as possible on all issues related to social inclusion and gender.
Can you enumerate some reforms that we have initiated in the Nepali census process over the years?
This is linked to the political changes and development of the country. After 1990, we started collecting data on various castes and communities as well as on physically-challenged people. Similarly, more priority was given to people’s educational and economic status after 1990. I already mentioned one previous shift in 1952, when our census-taking became more scientific.
How has the census system of Nepal adapted to the new federal setup?
During the last census in 2011, the country was already a federal state but the three-tier governments were yet to be formed. So we did the census based on old state structure. Later, the data were converted to make them suitable for a federal structure. I don’t think there has been much change in census-taking in Nepal in recent times, save for greater emphasis on social inclusion.
How does the new constitution guide the census process?
The constitution says new census should reflect the federal structure, and datasets have to be prepared and analyzed accordingly. Similarly, we have to have comparative data on provincial and local governments. The analytical part of census will also be expanded.
How are CBS datasets made compatible to government goals?
Our census is comprehensive. We collect data on many areas and so the state can ask CBS to analyze particular areas. For example, the new government has given social security top priority. To implement its social security scheme, many types of data—for instance on the age and distribution of senior citizens—are required. The CBS can provide segregated data from center to ward level.
What is the current status of coordination between CBS and other government agencies?
We invest a lot of time, energy and resources in carrying out census so the government must make sure it makes maximum use of hard-gathered data. There should be maximum analysis, which has not been the case traditionally. The census has rather been turned into a ritual.
Why are we so weak on the analytical part?
First, the government hardly ever tells CBS what type of data it needs for effective implementation of its policies and programs. If the state demands, CBS will be obliged to provide the required data. CBS produces many reports based on census data, and most of these reports are filled with numbers and tables and charts. If the numbers were to be interpreted and analyzed, it would be useful for maximum number of people.
How political is the census process? For instance, in the past, there have been accusations of ethnic and religious bias in census.
We hear some people say that the number of adherents of certain religion has been artificially decreased or increased. But these are baseless accusations. There could be technical glitches and human errors but the information provided by respondents are never distorted.
What about influencing of staffs deployed in data-collection?
That is not impossible but still improbable. During the previous census, there was a misinformation campaign about CBS misrepresenting the speakers of certain mother tongues. Similarly, inaccurate information was spread on Maithili and Hindi languages. Mainly in the districts that now fall in Province 2, there were attempts to politicize some issues, but they were later resolved. Such issues could reemerge during the next census so CBS should properly train its staff. Any effort to influence census must be dealt with there and then. But I don’t think this is a big issue here in Nepal.
There are demands that citizens in the Kalapani region also be included in new census.
We have already issued a new political map that clearly shows Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as falling within Nepal. So, in this light, CBS must hold a census there. But since this is also a political issue, it is the government that should decide whether or not to do so. CBS cannot make the final call on this.
Were there any initiatives in 2011 to hold census in Kalapani area?
When we were preparing for the 2011 census, a Kalapani local came to see me. He had with him maps and documents showing the areas that had been encroached upon. He demanded that census be conducted there. I saw his documents and maps, which were genuine. After that I talked to our representatives in the National Planning Commission but got no response. I don’t think the commission forwarded this proposal to the government for consideration. Had the government directed us to do so, it would have been our duty to carry out its order. Now, there are again talks about holding census there but CBS cannot do much without a clear government directive.
What are the areas we need to improve upon to make the census process more effective?
The basic principle of census is to ensure that no one is left and no one is repeated. To do so, each designated counting area should have around 200 families, and one area should be allocated to one official to ensure collection of accurate data. Before the census is conducted, we should collect actual home addresses, which happens in the US. A comprehensive database of exact houses should be prepared.
The current process of data collection is time-consuming and there are also reliability issues. From filling forms to analyzing data, we have to work in multiple steps and there could be errors. In the coming days, we have to adopt new information technology. In some countries, filled forms are scanned and data churned out. We too must adopt high-tech. Only this will ensure maximal use of collected data.
Are there alternatives to the current census pattern held every 10 years?
We conduct census every 10 years. Once done, the figures are not updated for the next 10 years. But we can conduct daily census. Such a process has already been recognized by the UN, and some countries are already practicing it. Every day, we get updated information on the population, which is known as vital registration. Norway and Denmark conduct no census as their vital registrations serve as census. Now that internet and technology are also widely available in Nepal, we too can do vital registration. As we get real-time data with this, we will have to start following it, sooner or later.