The guessing game is over-Nepal's population is just over 23.2 million, says the Nepal Census on Population and Housing 2001. Other than that, the preliminary report mostly reconfirms what we'd suspected-that despite governmental and non-governmental efforts, the population is growing too fast and will double in 31 years at the current growth rate of 2.27.
There are some surprises, though. The population has grown by 25,000 less than anticipated based on the 1991 census-there are only some 525,000 new Nepalis, because the growth rate has actually come down a little from 2.38. There is no official data yet on the composition of the population by age, which makes it difficult to guess at what rate Nepal's population will grow in the years to come.
Still, there is enough in the report to make some educated guesses at how the composition and distribution of Nepal's population will change over the next decade. There will be fewer males in the productive age-group. This is mainly because the already high mobility in this segment of the population will only increase as young men continue to move within Nepal and abroad in search of employment and personal advancement. This is why, although the overall female population is higher, men add up to bigger counts in urban areas. In only 18 of the 58 municipalities do women outnumber men, and even these are municipalities close to larger urban areas or those that have been seriously affected by the Maoist insurgency, like Putali Bazar and Waling of Syangja, Prithnarayan Nagar of Gorkha, Kamalami of Sindhuli, Bidur Nagar of Nuwakot or Panauti of Kavre district. There are also fewer men in border towns across from India like Mahendranagar and Dhagadi in the west and Bhadrapur in the east. Similarly, the male population is also found to be concentrated in the more fertile and affluent sections of the tarai, and in the eastern and central development regions where opportunities for employment and personal advancement are available.
Such high mobility among youth affects development attempts in a very direct way. As the productive section of the population homes in on affluent areas, more backward regions are left with the responsibility of investing in education and healthcare, but left with a population that cannot contribute too much to such efforts. The infertile mountain regions are home to a meagre seven percent of the population. The tarai-only 23 percent of Nepal's land-has 48.5 percent of the population and is under tremendous pressure to accommodate new migrants. Such uneven distribution of population in the mid-hills, the mountains and the tarai could have disastrous environmental and developmental consequences. Already land in the tarai is decreasing in fertility due to over-farming, and land-holdings are being fragmented.
"This is the what happens when the concept of equal development fails-it drives these people away from where they are needed," said Dr Ram Hari Aryal, a demographer. And so planners are faced with a paradox: young, able men do not stay in their native regions because of the slow pace of development, but to speed up positive change precisely this segment of the population is a vital resource.
Migration to cities is also high-almost 15 percent of Nepal lives in its 58 municipalities. Kathmandu tops the list with five percent growth over the last decade. The least developed far-western region is a home to only 9.5 percent of the population, about one-fourth the number in the most developed central development region.
Women, in comparison, move around less, and their concentration in less-developed areas means they are denied opportunities for advancement. Only 13 percent of the women live in urban areas where the populace has greater access to education, health and other social development infrastructure. The far-western development region has already seen a marked increase in female-headed households and a considerably higher economic dependence on women. The same phenomenon is prevalent, although in less extreme fashion, in the western and mid-western regions, while in the more highly developed eastern and central development areas, men outnumber women.
The preliminary report does not give too much detail about how this imbalance and male migration is affecting Nepal's women, but indications are that in general, women are not doing too badly-the sex ratio of 0.997 means women are not discriminated too much in terms of health care and nutrition. A clearer picture will emerge in the final report which for the first time will have data on issues related to women's ownership of land and their contribution to the economy. (See also "Women count", #35.)
Other matters to look out for in the final report include some more firsts that will hopefully give a clearer picture of who lives where and does what, and how migrants assimilate. The 2001 census attempted for the first time to study the social structure of Nepal's populace in terms of ethnicity, religion and language. Radha Krishna KC, deputy director of the Central Bureau of Statistics, declined to share the findings with us, but hinted that the final report might mark a noticeable increase in the Buddhists and the use of languages that were left out of previous censuses. This is unsurprising, given the efforts of various janjati groups to educate their members to fill in the forms accurately. ("Janjatis want to stand up, and be counted", #42.)
There's more to come, but some things are already clear from the 2001 census: the growth rate of the population and the average size of households have both come down. But we still have quantity and quality problems with our population and bringing it down to a manageable size and mix remains a challenge.