The 12th National Population and Housing Census of Nepal (NPHC) scheduled for 11 to 25 November 2021 is the first census to take place after the restructuring of the country’s governance with a new administrative structure i.e., federal Nepal with seven provinces and 753 local governments. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the agency responsible for the planning and implementation of census-related activities, is attempting to address the diverse data demands of these governments by adopting wider scientific and hi-tech approaches.
Ahead of the 12th NPHC, Dr. Hem Raj Regmi, Deputy Director General at CBS, talked exclusively to the DevelopmentAid journalist for South Asia, Laxman Datt Pant, about the importance of the census and its preparations focusing on the impact of the census results on national policy dialogue and development.
DevelopmentAid: How do you compare the 12th NPHC of Nepal to previous censuses?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: Nepal has passed almost 110 years in conducting censuses. The first count included information on households as well as inventories of public goods i.e., stone taps, temples with more archeological than statistical value. Since then, the population counts have been made approximately every 10 years which continues today as NPHC of Nepal. With the establishment of democracy in 1950, Nepal actually implemented internationally recognized scientific methods for the collection, compilation, and analysis of the data. Questionnaires have been revised from the headcounts of males and females to various characteristics such as age, geography, education, literacy, the facilities people receive, and the economy.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, new issues emerged in the population census of Nepal. We started to collect more diverse information focusing basically on access to facilities that households have such as toilets, sources of electricity, drinking water, how far away the school is, how far away hospitals and roads are.
DevelopmentAid: Since the 12th NPHC was postponed from June to September/November due to the surge in COVID-19, do you consider the present time to be favorable to undertake the census? What are the precautions being taken while documenting data amid the pandemic?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: In the history of Nepal, the census has been postponed only twice. Firstly, in 1950 due to political reasons and secondly now in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the second phase of COVID-19, the government imposed restrictions on travel, public gatherings, and mobility that compelled us to postpone the census from June to September/November. We saw that the time is now favorable with cases of COVID-19 going down and the government restrictions being cancelled. Also, the rainy season is over with no chances of landslides and floods. We discussed with the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) and concluded that with the threshold of more than 20% people being fully vaccinated and approximately 50% vaccinated with the first dose, the situation can be considered favorable to conduct the census.
Around 2,000 officials involved in the census have been fully vaccinated and 90% of the 8,000 supervisors involved in the first round of the census have also been fully vaccinated whereas 10% of them have had their first dose. The MoHP officials have assured us that over 39,000 enumerators will be vaccinated before they start their work. Thus, the effect of the COVID-19 will be minimal.
DevelopmentAid: What is your assessment of the technical and operational capability of the CBS and other key government institutions to plan and execute population censuses and large-scale statistical operations in Nepal?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: The technology adaptation in developing countries always remains an issue. In remote areas of Nepal, people cannot access hi-tech approaches. This time, although we have tried to manage about 50,000 tablets/smartphones for around 50,000 people involved in data collection, we were unable to do so mainly due to a lack of resources. Another issue is related to the reuse of those tablets. Even if the government or donors provide these resources, they will be used for only about 15 to 20 days during the census. The question then arises about their reuse. Hence, we were not able to fully use the computer-assisted personal interviews (CAPI) in the census. However, in Kathmandu valley, supervisors and enumerators are using these tablets to collect data relating to different aspects of the census. In the remaining parts across the country, they are collecting all the relevant data traditionally i.e., using pens and papers.
We are also using the e-census method particularly for resident mission people living abroad. Their information is collected via emails.
DevelopmentAid: What needs to be done to make the census results more reliable and widely acceptable?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: We are committed towards data, monitoring, and accountability to achieve target 17.8 of the Sustainable Development Goals that calls for an improvement in the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technologies for which we are trying our best to produce high quality, timely and reliable statistics covering various indicators including income, gender, age, caste, community, immigration status, disability, geographical location, and relevant and fragmented data to reflect these issues in national policy formulations.
I agree that the census is a big operation where we require a lot of human resources and mobilizing such resources is always a big challenge. The use of the latest technology is an issue for us. However, we are trying our best with support from the international community, government agencies, and the telecom authority to overcome the technological barriers. Our efforts should be focused on removing the deficiencies related to the use of technology to have more reliable data.
DevelopmentAid: The size of the budget for the 12th NPHC is said to have been 2.3 times higher than the previous census. Could you elaborate on this including the areas of expenditure?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: In the two previous censuses of Nepal, we utilized sampling within the census but this time, with the restructuring of the governance and the increased data demand from the local level, there is no sampling at all.
The total size of the budget we estimated before the preparation of the master document for this census was around US$41.62 million which was supposed to go with CAPI. However, the Ministry of Finance of Nepal suggested reducing the budget and limited it to US$33.30 million. This budget includes pre-census activities, during census activities, and post-census activities for a total period of five years. A large portion of the budget (80%) will be spent this year and more than 50% of the budget will go on salaries and allowances. Very little money has been used for logistics management. The budget has been increased but just US$41.62 million for five years, counting seven million households and a population of more than 30 million cannot be considered a big amount.
DevelopmentAid: What is the expected population size of Nepal?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: The population clock we have prepared and displayed on the CBS information platforms is basically based on the birth rates, death rates, and migration rates of the previous census from 2011. Since then, we have not carried out any large-scale population surveys and censuses. We don’t have new birth rates and death rates which might have gone down due to increased awareness and access to health facilities. Due to the COVID-19, the death rate might have increased. Domestic migration will not affect the population size. However, international migration will have a noticeable effect.
DevelopmentAid: How is Nepal’s census different from that of other South Asian countries?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: Nepal’s census-taking process is a little bit different than that of other countries in South Asia. In Bhutan, the population is counted within a day whereas we are taking 15 days for the main census. India carries out its census through administrative sources. It does not do a population count in some of the conflict zones. They collect information on various socio-economic characteristics of the entire population. Pakistan conducted its first census in 20 years in 2018 mainly due to security reasons. Our census-taking process is more similar to that of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
DevelopmentAid: While census questionnaires elsewhere in the world generally have 20 questions on average, why does Nepal have a longer census questionnaire (80) than any other country in the world that conducts a census?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: The reason we have a longer census questionnaire is that we don’t have other censuses and periodic surveys about the population. Many countries across the world do large-scale surveys regularly on population issues such as caste and ethnicity, health and access to infrastructure. They have separate censuses on languages and economic issues. We do have this information but it is very limited.
Everyone needs to be counted during the census and we do come under a lot of pressure regarding the inclusion of different questions from the government, civil society actors, politicians, and even the international community. They have recommended that we collect all that information. Along with the restructuring of governance, there is huge information demand from authorities at the local level. With almost 80 questions, Nepal’s census questionnaire can be considered one of the longest across the world.
DevelopmentAid: How will the census results support the achievements of Nepal’s development goals and contribute towards policy direction?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: Nepal’s development goals are highlighted in the current 15th National Plan. Nepal is also committed to report its progress periodically towards international commitment, particularly the SDGs. The census does not provide all the information on the development indicators. It gives us the denominator i.e., the size of the economy, usual employment rate, and so forth. The census will provide information about 30 indicators and targets of the SDGs. If we get a new population size from the census, the per capita income may change thus impacting the threshold and the rate of poverty. The change in population size will also affect electorates across the country and will also have a significant impact on policy dialogues.
DevelopmentAid: Would you like to share any pressing issue that I have omitted to discuss?
CBS DDG Dr. Regmi: The main issue is that of participation. I expect that all stakeholders, local governments, media, the international community, non-governmental organizations, and pressure groups will join hands together to make the decennial population count a great success.