Nepal is going beyond just counting its population in its 12th National Population and Household Census, and this is throwing up issues of identity and citizenship.
Postponed from June to November because of the second Covid-19 wave, this is the country’s first census under a federal system. But Nepalis without citizenship have launched a campaign refusing to participate, encouraging others like them to deny census officials from entering into their homes.
“Those of us raised by single mothers have become stateless,” said Indrajit Safi, a civil engineer and national coordinator of the activist collective Nagariktabihin Nepali (Nepalis Without Citizenship). “If we are denied citizenship despite our parents having been Nepali citizens, what is the point of participating in the census?”
Stateless Nepalis have been mobilising across various social media groups to urge others without citizenship to boycott the census, saying that the foundation of the national count was built on ‘a violation of the Constitution that has made Nepali youth stateless’.
In 2013, the Forum of Women, Law and Development (FWLD) conducted a study Acquisition of Citizenship Certificate in Nepal: Estimating Prevalence, to conduct its own ‘census’ of the number of Nepalis who did not have citizenship documents.
It used data for the number of Nepalis aged 16 and above from the 2011 census as well as the number of citizenship certificates issued by the Home Ministry from 1952 until 2010 as the main parameters.
The result of the study estimated the number of Nepalis without citizenship at 4.6million, and projected that at the rate of population growth at the time the number of stateless Nepalis would increase to 6.7 million by 2021.
“If the Citizenship Act is not amended, we will also obstruct the upcoming elections,” Safi added at a meeting on Wednesday. “This discriminatory Constitution must be amended as soon as possible.”
Activist Deepti Gurung, who raised her two children as a single mother recalled how a school teacher tore up her daughter’s SLC registration form because it did not mention the name of the father, and another where her younger daughter’s birth certificate included श्रिमान ठेगान नभएको (Husband not known) as the name of her father.
“I was introduced as an unwed mother in front of the CDO officials,” Gurung says. “And I would be constantly asked to detail the story of what ‘actually happened’ with regards to the father, as if officials were more concerned with keeping records of such incidents. What I experienced is that women must provide a narrative of being pure of character who have been victimised by bad men who led them to their circumstance— to appeal citizenship for their children.”
Gurung eventually filed writ petitions in the Supreme Court to get her daughters birth and citizenship certificates. She was able to win both the cases.
And while Gurung hoped that the court ruling in her case would be a precedent she was informed that this was being done in a “case-by-case basis”. “So we have not really won,” she says.
Activists point to articles in the Constitution related to citizenship that treat women differently from men, and are discriminatory. Under Article 11(5), for instance, children born to a Nepali father and a foreign-born mother are eligible for citizenship by descent, while those born to a Nepal-born mother and a foreign-born father will be granted naturalised citizenship, with less privileges.
Politicians have used nationalism to justify this, saying that allowing offspring of foreign men citizenship would lead to a surge of Indians marrying Nepalis. Activists and politicians, especially in the Tarai, say this is absurd.
The other thorny issue in the November census is how to conduct the census in the disputed border areas of Kalapani and Limpiyadhura. Rival claims to the territory strained relations between India and Nepal after Prime Minister K P Oli got Nepal’s Parliament to unanimously pass an amendment bill to include the territory in its national emblems and its own political map.
Now, the question is how to conduct a census in the remote mountainous region at the northwestern tip of Nepal that is occupied by India. In 1961, journalist Bhairab Rijal was one of the enumerators who was assigned to conduct the census in Kalapani, and says it was within Nepal’s boundary then.
Risal and his team reached the villages of Gunji, Nabi and Kuti in the disputed Kalapani and Limpiyadhura territory which is now claimed by India.
“The fact that we actually conducted a census there 60 years ago is irrefutable proof that Nepal extends all the way to the main channel of the Kali River,” Risal says. But given the sensitivity of the issue, Nepal is unlikely to provoke India by forcibly sending census enumerators there this time.
For its part, by Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) maintains that it is ready to conduct the census anywhere in Nepal.
“If the administration, our security forces, and concerned authorities determine that the situation is feasible and give the go-ahead, our census officials are trained and ready to conduct the census in Klapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh,” says Tirtha Raj Chaulagain of the CBS.
The census had been planned for June 2021, but now with the daily caseload and fatalities falling, it will be conducted 11-25 November.
This marked the second time that Nepal’s census is not being held as scheduled in the 110-year old history of the exercise. During the upheaval after the fall of the Rana regime, the 1951 census had been postponed.
The 2021 census will comprise of three separate questionnaires: House and Household Listing, the main questionnaire, and the Community Questionnaire.
This first phase before the census, during which officials conduct the House and Household listing, began on 15 September and is set to end on 4 October.
At present, 8,500 census supervisors trained by the CBS in April are conducting the House and Household listing before the main census activities begin.
In early November, 39,000 enumerators from across the country will be trained to approach, interact with, and interview people and fill out the main questionnaire.
After that, enumerators will be deployed across the country to fill up the main census questionnaire while the census supervisors fill the Community Questionnaire during two weeks from 11-25 November.
“By now, census supervisors should have conducted the listing for approximately 2 million households across the country,” says Chaulagain of CBS, speaking to Nepali Times from Siraha, where he is overseeing census-related activities.
The 2011 census put the number of Nepali households at 5.4 million, but CBS officials say the number is expected to go up to 7 million in 2021.
The three questionnaires, which are comprehensive and will include new questions, combined with the changed modality of data collection that allows officials in the Kathmandu Valley to conduct a ‘paperless’ census are expected to provide more detailed data and to reflect the country’s changing socio-political and demographic landscape more accurately.
Nepal’s distinct ethnic compositions, cultures and religious communities are also expected to be reflected in the data as the country goes through a socio-cultural shift. In fact, data from the previous census shows that rising ethnic awareness and openness have resulted in a sharp population increase of some ethnic communities like the Kami and Badi that previously went underreported.
Meanwhile, census data shows that the percentage of Nepalis who identify as Hindu has declined over the years after the country became secular. However royal-Hindu-right parties at present have attempted to cash in on increasing public disillusionment by flagging secularism as being unsuitable for Nepal, and even leaders like Rabindra Mishra of the alternative Bibeksheel-Sajha party called for a referendum.
Initial reaction shows that many people are reluctant to disclose their true household income, and share other personal details related to property and assets.
Census supervisors and enumerators, unlike government school teachers in the past, will be educated young Nepalis who will have better knowledge and context about their local communities.
The CBS has adopted the motto, ‘My Census, My Participation’ for this iteration of the census, and publicising the census through mobile ringtones for citizens to get up and be counted.