MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
The good news about the 2011 Nepal Census report issued last week by the Central Bureau of Statistics is that it looks like Nepal finally defused its population bomb. The country's population growth rate, which was hovering at about 2.5 percent is now falling past the 1.3 percent mark and the average fertility rate has seen a sharp decline.
The bad news is that the youth bulge is huge, with nearly 55 per cent of the population below the age of 25. Members of this baby boomer generation are now entering the labour market at the rate of nearly 500,000 a year. Half that number is migrating to work overseas, the rest are left to fend for themselves.
It doesn't take a Nobel laureate to figure out that Nepal's population pyramid will have enormous political ramifications in the years ahead. No matter which party gets to rule this country, leaders will have to come to grips with providing domestic jobs for the backlog of unemployed as well as hundreds of thousands of young adults who will be entering the labour market every year.
Democracy's demographic challenges are going to make governance so thorny and complex that one wonders why the parties are so desperate to get to power. But we already know the answer to that: the leaders are so obsessed with politicking that they are oblivious to the looming job bomb.
When they do show some interest in demography, it is to play identity politics and claim that the census is somehow biased against Brahmins, or Janajatis, or Christians, or Hill people, etc. Economists have already pointed out flaws in the census for not counting the absentee population, and grossly underestimating the number of people who are working in India and other third countries at any given time.
Those burning the census report at Thapathali this week citing ethnic undercounting obviously ran out of an agenda, and once more took recourse in fanning the flames of identity politics out of desperation. It's not just the Janajatis whose population has gone down, there is a massive depopulation of mid-hills with some districts showing as much as one-third of its population "missing" compared to 10 years ago, due to out-migration.
What is going to have a real profound impact on future politics, though, is the fact that for the first time in Nepali history, more people now live in the narrow strip of Tarai plains along the Indian border than in the Pahad and Himal. Some of this is because of the high natural population growth in the plains, but much of it is due to transmigration of people from the hills and from across the border. One can argue over which of these is the main factor in Tarai growth, but what is clear is that the plains are now a melting pot. Carefully handled, this can moderate politics, but irresponsible short-sighted politics can turn the Tarai into an explosive ethnic cauldron.
The census result shows dramatic improvements in literacy, especially in the percentage of women who can read and write which has soared from 37 per cent 10 years ago to 57 per cent. As literacy goes up, it will have a positive impact on a slew of indicators, including the fertility rate, maternal and child mortality, age of marriage, and future enrollment of children in school.
The youth bulge, melting pot demographics, and urbanisation can all be turned into forces of good and for progress. But only if there is the political will to follow through on the positive changes seen in the census, and to avoid the pitfalls of short-term political advantage.
Nepal is not a small country, it is the world's 40th most populous. It is also not poor. Just poorly-governed, and for far too long.
Mind the gap, RAMESH KUMAR
As Nepal's population pyramid experiences a youth bulge, many young adults will simply have no jobs when they enter the labour market