2011 Census

Amulya Ratna Tuladhar

26.6 million, instead of 28.5 million expected, is the latest Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) preliminary estimate for Nepal’s 2011 census! With 2 million people less than predicted, will population no longer be a development problem for Nepal? Yes and No.

Yes, it would no longer be a development problem; this could be argued 3 ways: First, population numbers have been a big specter for most of Nepal’s modern era beginning from 1950, when it started to open to the benefits of development from the outside world. Nepal moved rapidly from about 8 million people in 1950s to nearly 27 million in 2011, over a triple. Fears of Malthusian doom rose in the 1970s and materialized by the 1980s when Nepal turned from a food surplus to a food deficit country. Will the increase in population numbers negate the benefits from development has been an anxiety of Nepalese? 

Second, population numbers that threatened to double at shorter and shorter intervals, from 60 yrs in the beginning of 1950s to 26 years in 1980s, have now slowed to longer periods, 51 yrs for the current growth rate of 1.4 %, a good reduction from 2.25% in the earlier decade. Many demographers had observed a slow decline in mortality from 1911 to 1961 and fertility declines from 1961 to1996, with the average number of children per Nepali woman (Total Fertility Rate, TFR) declining from 6 to 5 between 1961 to 1981 and now to 2.7 in 2011, according to the National Demographic Health Survey.

Third, demographers like Pitamber Sharma now confirm that Nepal’s population has moved to Stage III of the demographic transition observed in many European countries over the last 2 centuries and which is theorized to explain population change in the world and Nepal. According to the demographic transition model, if correct, the population is like to stabilize in the near future. Demographer Shyam Thapa had studied 4 different scenarios of declines in fertility rates, leading to 46 to 100 million by 2100. 

NO: Even if we can expect a capping of population over the coming century we could still have at least 3 types of development problems in Nepal as discussed below: First, until, we reach a cap, population numbers will still grow due to the large fraction of young people who are yet to reach their fertile periods of ages 15-45. 

This is variously called population bulge, or population momentum. Such increase in population numbers, to at least double the current 26.6 million, would mean the net increase in demands for services. Given than even in 2011, 83% of the population are still rural, such demands would be made upon rural and natural resource environments. Such a trend is confirmed by the continued growth in population density of mountains and hills despite increasing outmigration from these regions. As a result both food insecurity and livelihoods vulnerabilities are expected to increase. Second, some of this increase in population and their demands for employment have been absorbed by outmigration and remittance economy, which has accelerated over the last decade. 

Third, can Nepal continue to depend on outmigration and remittance to solve this population bulge over the coming century? The remittance economy, of late, has been credited with bringing more development in the lives of ordinary Nepalese than 50 years of nation-state led trickle down “development”.

Despite the documented positive effects of outmigration and remittance economy on Nepal’s development, the following insidious effects have to be monitored: a) The exposure to outside ideas and higher income increases the aspirations of the outmigration households. This will relieve the pressures of growing population on the natural environment. b) The outmigration households will also demand faster and better services from the State from material services to political and social rights so there would be great pressures for social change; however, because of the extended duration of their residency outside the country, the social and human capital necessary to build institutions to deliver such services of change may not develop fast enough, so the possibility for conflicts increase. c) Despite a significant chunk of population outmigrating, in 2011, such as the hill districts of West Nepal (Parbat, Gulmi, Arghakhanchi, Pyuthan etc) witnessing a population decline, we still have a recalcitrant residual population of the poorest of the poor, the landless, the indigenous, and the low castes that have very little economic, social other resources to escape the dire situation of their Nepalese landscape. 

Meanwhile, the latest CBS census results raises the hopes of a capping population numbers relieving pressures on Nepal’s development but the insidious dangers of outmigration and remittance economy continue to exist in the foreseeable future where Nepal’s population is still likely to double before the century is over.

Prof. Tuladhar teaches graduate level Population and Development in Nepal.

Published on: 30 September 2011 | The Himalayan Times

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