Count me

Text by Anil Chitrakar

W   e all need to be counted and we all need to know our fellow Nepalis much better than   ever before. The true nature of the diversity of this country has to be understood if we are to attain our goals for a peaceful and prosperous Nepal. In 1919 Prime Minister Chandra Sumshere established the “Census Goswara” with the purpose of “keeping record of men, women, cattle, places and land”.  According to the census returns of 1920 AD, the number of houses in the Kathmandu valley was 64,440 while the population was counted as 306,909 persons.

No one really knows how many people live in the valley in 2011. There is a very large floating population and during the festivals of Dashain and Tihar when many people will leave for “home” will we get a sense of the local population. Many also have houses here and in the districts as well. To escape the conflict and to avoid having to join either side of the conflict many Nepalis left for work abroad. Today, the number of people “flying out” is close to 1000 per day.

The result of the census carried out in 1920 was recorded by Perceval Landan in his book on Nepal published in 1928 in London. According to these tables, Palpa and Gulmi in western Nepal had a population of 376,900 which was much greater than the Kathmandu valley. Similarly in eastern Nepal, the hill settlement of Dhankuta had a population of 353,062, again greater than the valley population. It was only in the 1950s with the eradication of malaria in the terai, that people were encouraged to move down to the plains and settle near the Indian border. The numerous towns and massive deforestation that Nepal witnessed in the last century are a direct result of this policy.

Kathmandu valley on the other hand got a huge in–migration because after 1950, the administrative powers began to be centralized here. Then tourism created hotels, restaurants and attracted job seekers. With the growing demand for carpets in Europe, a huge number of weavers moved into the valley. The armed conflict of the past 10 years really accelerated this process and people estimate that the valley today has a population that ranges between 2 and 3 million, which is ten times higher than in 1920 AD. No wonder all the city infrastructures are under stress. Water shortage, garbage collection, the state of the Bagmati, and  air pollution are all indicators of this stress.

In 1920, the terai towns were not small either. Birgunj and the adjoining areas of Bara, Parsa, and Rauthat had a population of 414,657, again much larger than the Kathmandu valley. Similarly Mahotari and Sarlahi had a population of 471,292 and Saptari 377,855. On the other hand fast growing areas today such as Chitwan in the inner terai had a population of only 20,520 in 1920.

Looking at the total for the whole of Nepal, the 1920 census states that there were a total of 957,609 houses and the population was stated to be 5,573,791. We can see that the numbers were not even rounded off. It seems that every Nepali was actually counted to come up with a figure that accurate. There is a foot note in the book stating that the number of houses was taken from the 1910 census. For a country with so much snow and mountains, the density is very high. The Kathmandu valley towns of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, according to the 1920 census, states that each of them had a population of 108,805, 104,928 and 93,176 respectively. Just make sure you are counted this time.