THE decennial census serves some very important functions. As per the interim constitution, new electoral constituencies are to be delineated on the basis of the latest census report. Officials at Election Commission don’t expect drastic changes in the number and shape of electoral constituencies after the publication of the final results of the 2011 national census. But national censuses, traditionally, produce sizable changes in voting patterns. Census figures also determine how billions of rupees set aside for government programs are spent in the changed socio-economic situation. Individual government bodies and interest groups use data on variables like religion, ethnicity, gender, age and disability to push through and adjust their programs. The for-profit sector, meanwhile, mines census data to fine tune business strategies.
Since such a lot rests on the interpretation of census data, its results are sometimes contested, particularly in developing countries like Nepal where data collection often fail to meet high scientific standards. For instance, the Brahman Samaj suspects the data on Hill Brahman population (which has gone down from 12.7 percent in 2001 to 12.2 percent in 2011) is a reflection of a bias of certain ‘missions’ against Brahmins. Others have contested the census data on radio ownership and internet penetration. But broad trends that the 2011 census hints at are likely to hold true. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the national population in 2011 reached 26.5 million, representing an annual growth of 1.35 percent. The lowest growth rate in the last six decades suggests that relentless promotion of population control measures are bearing fruit, although a large male absentee population might also be responsible for slow population growth. Nor is the skewed sex ratio of 94.16 males per 100 females that has emerged in 2011 census a surprise, again due largely to nearly 1.9 million-strong, mostly-male absentee population.
The census reveals a clear trend towards urbanization: the urban population has gone up to 17.7 percent from 14.2 percent in 2001, a characteristic of a developing society with high social mobility. Figures on religious affiliations hint that since the declaration of the country as a secular republic, people are finding it easier to adopt religions of their choice. Another progressive change is an encouraging spurt in literacy rate, which has climbed from 57.4 percent to 65.9 percent in ten years’ time; but the figure is still low, even by South Asian standards (Sri Lanka’s is 91 percent, Bhutan’s 96 percent). In fact, the country is far from achieving all the desired socio-economic changes: the persistently high rate of underage marriage is troubling (48.9 percent of the youth still get married between the ages of 15 and 19; 11.5 even before they reach 14). According to 2011 census, 55 percent Nepalis are under 25, a youth bulge which presents clear advantages (a high percentage of productive workforce, higher remittances) as well as challenges (higher crimes rates, joblessness). A drastic improvement in access to electricity (from 39.8 percent in 2001 to 67.26 percent in 2011) would be a cause of celebration if the country didn’t have to witness up to 12-hours of daily power cuts. The new census data paints a picture of a country at a threshold: if it can consolidate on its political gains of the last decade, there are enough indicators of a rosy future for Nepal; but if the political class fails to honor its responsibility yet again, most of the positive indicators might be reversed in no time at all.