20-26 November 2015 #783

Democracy and the demographic shift

The movement of Nepal’s population within the country is having a profound impact on its politics
Sarthak Mani Sharma

When a draft copy of the 2011 census report was shown to Nepal’s leading demographer, he was stunned. He thought there had been a mistake. 

“Some of the figures were so surprising I asked the statisticians to check the whole report again,” Yagya Bahadur Karki, a former member of the National Planning Commission recalls.  

The Central Bureau of Statistics eventually published the census report, which gave a glimpse of the tremendous movement of people from hills to plains, from rural to urban areas and migrations abroad for work. The figures have huge implications for public policy, politics and, in particular, appear to be at the root of the current unrest in the Madhes.

“The result of the 2011 census are more important than ever because they suggest that Nepal has seen tremendous demographic transformation in the last decade,” says Karki.

The most significant aspect of these changes, and one that appears to be fuelling protests in the Tarai, is the accelerated transmigration of hill settlers down to the plains. The number of hill Bahuns, Chhetris, Limbus and other ethnic groups as a proportion of Tarai’s population has risen sharply in the past decade. In 2001, lifetime migrants in the Tarai, who include people not born there, numbered 1.1 million, and ten years later, that figure had increased to 1.4 million.        “This increases the importance of assimilation and communal harmony between different ethnic groups,” says Pitamber Sharma, former Vice-Chairman of the National Planning Commission who advocated including Jhapa in the Madhes Province 2. He says the current boundaries ignore the case for integration of hill and plains populations. “The demand for proportional representation based on population is a justified one because of the increasing population of the Tarai,” he explains.

The other dramatic demographic shift is in the population growth rate, which hovered at slightly above 2 per cent for the early 2000s but dropped to a startling 1.35 per cent in 2011. Some took this to mean that Nepal had defused the population bomb, while others argued that the figure is misleading because the census excluded Nepalis who had been living abroad for more than six months.

But demographer Karki says that even if we include the absentee population in the calculations as was done in 1991, Nepal’s population growth rate has still plummeted.

The average life expectancy of Nepalis is now 71, at par with countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Ukraine. “Growth in life expectancy is an outcome of investment made by the government in health and education sectors over the last two decades,” says economist Swarnim Wagle.

Meanwhile, twenty-seven of Nepal’s hill and mountain districts showed a negative population growth rate between 2001 and 2011.Demographers say that if this trend is not reversed and jobs are not created, more than half the districts in the hills will be nearly empty in 50 years.

Experts call this the period of ‘demographic dividend’ for Nepal — a duration of 20 to 30 years during which the working-age population is slightly greater than the population of the dependent age. A demographic dividend can spur economic growth if the government can spend on education, health and training to develop the skills of the workforce.

But if the population growth rate continues to decline Nepal may soon go the way of countries like Singapore and China with their ageing population. According to the United Nations Population Fund the average life expectancy of Nepalis could reach nearly 80 years by 2050 and the fertility rate will tumble down to 1.75 — far below the replacement rate of 2.1. 

Demographers refer to the ‘population pyramid’ to describe the country’s age structure. By 2050, Nepal’s will look less like a pyramid and more like a tree, top heavy with the elderly. 

Is Nepal prepared to cope with these transformations? Economist Keshav Acharya has a qualified yes. “Only if the state spends more on pension and medical care of the elderly and re-thinks the retirement age,” he says. 

Like many developing countries, Nepal can also reap the demographic dividend by spending to enhance the productive capacity of its working-age population.

Without that, the youth bulge will be out of work and may choose increasingly to migrate, which will trigger further demographic imbalances in the country.

More than anything else, though, the government must use demographic figures as crucial tools to form public and economic policies. Karki concludes: “The numbers aren’t just numbers. They bear important messages.”

Read also:

Demography and democracy, Kunda Dixit

Censoring the census, Editorial

World champion country, Ashutosh Tiwari

Time to grow up, Anurag Acharya