The only thing certain about Nepal's current population seems to be that it is still growing too fast, and that it will double in about 25 years. The estimate for Nepal's present population is 22 million, give or take two million. Figures for the population growth rate range from 2.1 percent to 2.7 percent, depending on who is counting. But finally, the guessing game may be over.
On 22 June 2001, tens of thousands of specially trained enumerators will fan out across the country for what is officially called the Nepal Census on Population and Housing 2001. But this is not just a count; enumerators will also collect data on age, sex, occupation, ethnic group, housing, schooling, migration and women's property rights. And for the first time, the census will provide answers, through gender-segregated data, on the status of women and their welfare. In themselves, the roles of men and women have a crucial bearing on family size, and the data will be invaluable in planning future strategies for Nepal's population management programme.
A consortium of donors, including various United Nations organisations, have already begun revising manuals, curricula and questionnaires, adding the gender perspective for the census takers. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting the recruitment of nearly 4,500 specialised women enumerators who will be trained to accurately fill in the census questionnaire. A pilot census was conducted earlier this year to pre-test questionnaires and the results have already been used to fine-tune data tabulation. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in Kathmandu claims that the 2001 count will be the most scientific of all censuses since the first National Census conducted in 1911 (when Nepal's population was a mere five million), and a virtual treasure house of valuable data compared with the last one in 1991.
Present estimates show that Nepal's fertility rate (the average number of children per couple) is 4.45, a big drop from 6.3 in 1970. The infant mortality rate, a key factor in inducing couples to have fewer children if it is low, has declined sharply from 187 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 83 today. But while the effect of these factors takes time to make an impact on fertility decline, the sharp drop in death rate and the still-high birth rate has opened a yawning gap and turned Nepal's demographic transition into a serious challenge.
Tribhuvan University population expert Bal Krishna Mabuhang says the census will be important for one simple reason: it will remove doubts about figures. Although Nepal's population crisis is alarming, he says there is no way to assess its impact on the country's overall development right now. "We cannot say for sure that our population situation has reached the crisis point on the basis of data presently available," Mabuhang says. Just one example of the wide disparity in figures is the 1991 census that showed Nepal's population in the 1981-1991 decade grew by 2.1 percent annually. But the National Planning Commission's calculation for the same period is 2.5 percent. After the 2001 figures come in, the Central Bureau of Statistics is planning to decentralise data analysis through regional data processing centres linked with the national data processing centre at its headquarters in Kathmandu. This will help carry out a proper study of present resources, service and opportunity distribution, and comprehensive trends on population mobility.
The lack of proper statistics is only part of the problem. The really big challenge is to get the government machinery and the politicians to use the figures properly to meet population targets. The current Ninth Five Year Plan has prioritised a 20-year population plan. Under this strategy, by 2016, Nepal's fertility rate has to reach "replacement level"-the point where an average couple has just enough children to replace themselves. In 15 years, if this goal is met, an average Nepali woman has to have no more than 2.4 children. But demographers like Bal Gopal Baidya, former member of the National Planning Commission, admit that this target may be unrealistic. "To get to replacement level by 2016 is very ambitious," Baidya told us.
But it has been done elsewhere. Thailand reduced its fertility rate from 6.4 in 1960 to a near-replacement level of 2.4 in 20 years with an aggressive contraceptive drive combined with family health services and economic growth. In Nepal, the government's 20-year strategy barely exists on paper, and for it to be adopted and implemented will clearly take some time. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. The Ninth Plan has also recommended intervention packages like family health services, child survival strategies, and contraceptive prevalence as effective tools for population control. But this would cost 80 percent of the total national budget outlay for public health, and no one in the Ministry of Population and Environment (MOPE) seems to know where that money is going to come from.
MOPE, it seems, has plenty to mope about. Nepal's population growth rate has slowed down slightly to 2.4 percent since 1995, but experts caution that it is simply not falling fast enough to take advantage of economic growth. At present rates of growth, the country's population will be 33 million by 2016 and perhaps 40 million by 2025. But if replacement level fertility is finally reached by 2020, then the growth will start slowing, but only very slowly.
With a population density of 150 people per sq km, Nepal is one of the most densely-population mountain regions of the world. Migration to the tarai and the cities counts towards an alarming urbanisation rate of 6.5 percent, which means the population of Nepali cities and towns is growing at nearly three times the national average. With contraceptive prevalence at barely 20 percent (compared to 50 percent in Bangladesh) all the present figures point to a doomsday demographic scenario. UNFPA in Nepal says that despite the decline in fertility rate Nepal's population is "still too big to be manageable." Economist Mohan Man Saiju, formerly with the National Planning Commission, agrees: "The present population growth rate is not sustainable in the context of economic and social progress."
Nepal is also lagging behind in commitments it made at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which affirmed that population control is closely linked to the alleviation of poverty, the empowerment of women and environmental protection. The 20-year programme of action adopted in Cairo calls for improved and wider access to education, especially for girls, the provision of quality reproductive health care, and increased all-round efforts to end violence against women and redress gender inequality. Nepal's performance on all scores is poor, and despite the progress of the past 30 years, it still lags behind other South Asian countries in key development indicators (see table). The worst records are in infant mortality (seven times higher in Nepal than in Sri Lanka) and maternal mortality, which is one of the highest in the world. Population planners say these parameters are directly correlated to factors like female literacy and the status of women, and sure enough, Nepal's literacy rate for girls is the lowest in the region. In fact, illiteracy among women in Nepal is the same as in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The government still hopes that last year's economic growth of six percent will trickle down and translate into a decline in the population growth rate. "If we manage to keep the annual economic growth at 4-5 percent with the population growth
rate pushed down to less than two percent, then we stand a chance to survive over-popula-tion," says Saiju.
But other experts warn that this year's economic growth
was an aberration caused by better harvests due to a healthy monsoon, and not because of better infrastructure and management, and they doubt if this rate can be sustained.
Demographer Ram Hari Aryal says Nepal has both "quantitative and qualitative" problems with its population. Nepal's population pyramid has a very large base, with children under 14 making up 44 percent of the population. Aryal is sharply critical of the lack of urgency in the government's response. "With this kind of laxity in the government, national population targets are unachievable," he told us bluntly.
The large proportion of young children also means a slower decline in fertility rates because of population momentum. It is a global demographic trend that women are having fewer children than their mothers, but since almost half the total population is under 25, any real decline in overall population is unlikely soon even if the government were super-efficient in implementing a new strategy.
The other demographic factor is uneven growth. The cities and the tarai are growing much faster than the mid-hills and the high mountain regions. MOPE estimates that population density in the tarai is already 254 per sq km, compared to only 28 per sq km in the mountains. Central Nepal is also much more heavily populated (275 per sq km) than the mid-western region (68 per sq km).
It doesn't look too good for Nepal, but even-especially-when the odds are stacked in favour of disaster, a start has to be made somewhere. If all goes as planned, the 2001 census will provide population and development planners with vital building blocks. And then the really difficult part begins.