12th National Census: Data system should be decentralized

Govinda Luitel

October 7, 2021


12th National Census: Data system should be decentralized

The twelfth national census is being conducted from November 11 to November 25. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) conducts the census, produces, processes, stores and publishes various data required by the state.

Under the same pretext, Khabarhub had an interview with the Director-General of CBS, Nebin Lal Shrestha, and tried to explore further the issues related to the work, quality and timely improvement of statistics and preparation of census in Nepal.

What is the current status of data collection, analysis and use in Nepal?

Data collection in Nepal began with the National Census, 110 years before, in 1911. When the first census was conducted, Chandra Shumsher Rana was the Prime Minister of Nepal. Later, data collection had other socio-economic purposes as well.

The census is a comprehensive national program that we conduct once in ten years. We are now conducting the twelfth census this time. The CBS also conducts national agricultural census now.

We do economic calculations every five years. This calculation is for the industry. We also conduct detailed data surveys. We do Nepal Living Standards Survey, Nepal Labor Force Survey, Nepal Multidimensional Survey, etc. We collect GDP data.

How reliable are our statistics, especially in terms of skilled manpower, technology and other essential components?

This is a very important question. The purpose of establishing a statistics department is to produce, analyze, use and store economic, social and demographic data.

The biggest responsibility is the publication of statistics. We publish all the calculations and survey data we have done. The data produced will be analyzed by the planners, researchers, scholars and students.

We (CBS) are like lab technicians. The doctor performs tests in the lab to find out the patient’s health condition. The lab reports and based on that analysis, the doctor executes his task, i.e. treat the patient.

CBS is also a lab. It reports the findings. Our main body is the National Planning Commission; there are other ministries and departments, and international agencies as well. All of them are analyzing the data.

Data storage is another important task. Once a statistic is produced, it is never ‘expired’. The future data is predicted by comparing old and new data.

Are we capable enough to collect and use all the data needed to make development and public service plans for a modern state?

That’s a crucial point. In fact, the Central Bureau of Statistics alone is not in a position to produce all the data that the state needs. Not only in the case of Nepal but also in developed countries, not a single organization can collect all kinds of data.

The data system should also be decentralized and designated. Just as the statistics of education are collected from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health collects the data of health and all the concerned agencies produce and use the data of their respective fields. It goes this way.

The main function of the CBS is to conduct the census, survey, storage and publication of national account figures.

We are still guided by the Statistics Act, 1958. This act is very old. It needs has to be updated as per the time and the changed federal structure. We have proposed a new Statistics Act. It has already been passed by the National Assembly. There will be tabled in the House of Representatives soon. We are expecting a new act soon.

There are two things in the new act, the designated statistics and the survey clearance system. Our Constitution also mentions that the central government is responsible for conducting national-level calculations and surveys. Provincial and local governments can produce the data they need.

Producing statistics is never enough, there should be uniformity. There should be a common understanding. The concept, definition and method have to be agreed upon. Then only it becomes comparable. Therefore, the statistical designation is required.

At the same time, the survey clearance system is very important. Anyone who needs statistics doesn’t say I will carry on the survey. Statistics are like medicine. Just as the wrong medicine harms the body, the wrong data harms the country. A data clearance system is needed to prevent misinformation and misuse of data. That’s why it is important to seek CBS consent before collecting any data.

By taking the right to sanction, we are not trying to restrict or stop anyone, we are trying to organize. Its objective is to ensure timely collection of data required by the state and avoidance of duplication.

I think there should be access to the basic level or the individuals to collect the important information to collect reliable data. Does CBS have this kind of access to fulfill its purpose? Has it worked on this?

Of course, we have not been able to reach the grassroots level as expected. We have limited manpower and financial resources. When it comes to technology. It is also important to explain the importance of statistics to the general public. When it comes to drinking water, sewerage, roads, etc., everyone is concerned and interested. However, there is no such awareness in many other sectors.

The state needs all kinds of resources and technology to produce all the data it needs. Even now we are doing the census on paper. One could carry a tablet and enter data directly.

In the survey, we have used tablets. We visited 12,000 to 15,000 homes at a time during the survey. As per the current census, we have to go to 7 million households. We are not in a position to use that modern technology at once on such a large scale.

Even in this situation, we are using modern technology in this census in Kathmandu. In Kathmandu, enumerators used tablets for data collection. It is like a trial for us.

The ministry and its departments compile and use statistics in their area. When the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister present the figures in the Parliament, the public protest that they have exaggerated and lied. Why do you think there is such opposition? Is it a lie?

One should look at the sources of data in this regard. I can proudly say that the statistics produced by CBS are fair and trustworthy. There is no pressure from the government on our statistics. Whatever facts are produced, we publish them; it is our ethics. We abide by the ethics of statistics.

In terms of the ruling party and the opposition, the interpretation of the data might be a political issue, I cannot answer why one interprets the data.

Various non-governmental organizations also collect and use data on their work. Is there any coordination between CBS and them or not?

There should be coordination but it has not been done. I mentioned earlier that such a provision has been made in the new act. No one is allowed to collect, use and disseminate data at their will under any circumstances.

Without knowing the method, concept, definition, fieldwork, data processing, level of representation, etc., it is not possible to say whether the data is correct or not. Therefore, we have proposed a survey clearance system in the bill of the new act.

Although the Students do not have to obtain permission for data collection, taking permission or going through a survey clearance system is mandatory for an organization. This prevents the double and triple use of resources.

What would you say if the Central Statistics Department had to point out the main problems it is currently facing in its work?

We lack manpower. There are 150 people in the Bureau. We have offices in 33 districts. The CBS and all the offices have an average of 550 employees. Not all of these employees are from the statistics service. We have to do statistics work from all 77 districts.

Another challenge is the resources. The state needs updated statistics every day. It sounds easy to say that the state has to invest more in statistics. But it is difficult to convince. In our country, investment in statistics is small but the expectation of return is high.

The civil service has ‘Nepal Economic Planning and Statistics Service’. We are employees under this service. Other ministries and departments also need statistics service staff, but currently, there is hardly any staff.

There are four joint secretary-level posts in the statistics service across the country and all of them are in the statistics department. I am one of them. Some ministries have a small number of deputy secretary-level posts in the statistics service.

Therefore, the ministries do not have the manpower to work on statistics. In some ministries, colleagues in the administration service are trained in statistics but when they get transferred the problem persists. It would not have made a difference if he had been transferred to the statistics service.

Technology problems are also associated with resources. If modern technology could be used in the census across the country, there would be no need to wait for six to eight months for data entry.

There would be no possible errors when moving from paper to computer. The government has provided as many resources as possible, but it requires a lot of financial resources to reduce them.

You talked about the Act, what are the other things to improve with the Designated Statistics and Survey Clearance System?

When the Act came 63 years ago, it came with a very good vision. Generally, there is a belief that the body producing statistics should be at the central level. Accordingly, the Central Bureau of Statistics has a role to play in the production of economic and social data. The Act also stipulates that ministries and other bodies should seek permission when compiling data for themselves.

Despite this, the demand for statistics has been increasing over time. The Central Statistics Office alone could not sustain it. Therefore, it is high time to decentralize the task of data production. Attempts have been made to decentralize at the federal, provincial and local levels as provided in the constitution.

We have also emphasized making data reliable by using modern technology. A lot of data is produced daily from various agencies but it has not been managed as per the plan. The new Act has tried to make provisions in this regard.

We have not developed a culture of data sharing. Data platforms could have been created but we have not been able to do so.

For example, in the 2001 census, we asked if there was a house or land in the name of a woman. It was also praised internationally. They even talked about awarding the initiation.

However, I believe that such statistics should be collected by Land Revenue Office.

Statistics such as births, deaths, and migration come regularly from the local level. When the data is organized in this way, the population can be updated even within ten years. The new Act also pays attention to such matters.

Now, the census is being conducted from November 11 to November 25. I have a query based on experience. I have been living in Kathmandu since the census of 1991. No enumerator came to my family in the last three censuses. Our main residence is in Morang. I don’t know if I was counted or not. I don’t even know what will happen in the upcoming census. What do you say about it?

You will not be missed this time. In the census, the main thing is where to count the person. There are two methods. One, counting where it is, like taking a photo. Few countries have used such methods. Another is the ‘frequent settlement method’, counting permanent homes where most people live. We often adopt the method of settlement.

Even if your permanent residence is in Morang, it is counted in Kathmandu as most of them live in Kathmandu. The most common way to find out the population of a place is through a ‘settlement system’.

As far as the calculation is concerned, no one should be missed, but some people can be missed. There is also the possibility of leaving due to the way of living. In densely populated cities, it is difficult for the enumerators to reach every nook and corner. Even remote areas have their own difficulties.

Even so, the positive side of us Nepalis is that we get heartfelt support when we get home. We have prepared accordingly. We have done good publicity to sensitize the public on the issue. We have coordinated with the local level.

We have also made maps using the GIS method by dividing the wards. This makes it easier for the enumerator to reach every house. We treat the respondent as our God, believing that we receive accurate information from God. Despite our attempts, there is still a possibility of omission, but still, I say no one should be omitted in the census.

Respondents should also be vigilant. They also know that enumerators come to the house. We believe that they will help accordingly.

Everyone should know that the calculations are for them and there should be an environment to own the data. Citizens should be informed about the economic, social, and political significance of the census through publicity. We are doing this.

Respondents need to be aware, take ownership, must participate and give accurate details to enumerators.

The people fear that my personal details given by them will be made public or misused. An attempt was made to dispel such suspicions in a census campaign. How do you convince citizens?

Yes, people have such illusions. There is an illusion that the information the public has given will not be kept secret. Our Statistics Act stipulates that no person’s data should be made public. This is the rule of statistics production all over the world.

An individual’s information, the name should also be kept secret. There is no space for an individual’s name. We will produce and publish statistics as a whole, not individual details.

Therefore, a person’s information is highly confidential. No one should doubt that their details will be misused.

The enumerators are assigned with all the preparation and training, but how do make sure that the enumerators work honestly and get the right information, what is the mechanism of inspection or monitoring?

Overall preparation for the census starts for five years: preparation and processing until the final publication. The CBS is not alone in preparing everything. It involves the participation of all stakeholders. There is the participation of all three levels of government and all political parties as well.

The census questionnaire is prepared after extensive discussion and participation. The discussion completes after approval from the Council of Ministers.

There is the supervision of enumerators, there will be the ratio of one supervisor equal to four enumerators. Supervisors have a big responsibility. The work of the supervisor is also monitored. We have formed a census facilitation committee in the ward. There are census offices and they are also in operation.

We believe that all enumerators and supervisors will work honestly and collect accurate details. However, we have created the necessary mechanisms to prevent errors.

What is the role of the local level in the census?

The role of the local level is very crucial. There are roles such as creating promotional materials, disseminating publicity, and facilitating enumerators and supervisors. We have received good support from the local level. We have received great help in publicity. The District Census Office has local-level representation.

During the preparation, we got good support from the people’s representatives and staff in the programs organized by us at the local level. They have assured us that they will support us in every way.

What is the status of publicity for everyone’s participation in the census? Has information reached households even in remote areas?

Yes, information should reach every house and every person. For this, we have created a variety of promotional materials. We have made audio-visuals, radio jingles, pamphlets, etc. We have tried to deliver all these materials from door to door.

In this, we have also got the support of development partners. The local levels have helped in the campaign, we have received support from the wards.

Due to COVID-19, the census was postponed for about four months. How can ensure that there will be no such obstruction in November? Is there any special preparation in this direction?

There is an issue with COVID-19. Different ethnic and religious communities may have their programs. They also need help. Questions should not be controversial. We have discussed all these issues many times. The questionnaire has been made with the consent of all. We believe that we will get support from everyone.

We are aware that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the census of 67 countries had to be postponed. Still, there is a question as to whether it will affect us as well.

We have discussed this issue with experts. We are in regular contact with the Ministry of Health. After discussions with all, the date has been fixed from November 11 to November 25.

The date has been set in consultation with experts on the basis that many have been vaccinated, infection cases are declining, and the majority of Nepalis are developing antibodies. Experts say the infection will not increase until November.

During the calculation, we will take all precautionary measures to avoid coronavirus infection. Eight thousand supervisors have all been vaccinated. The enumerators will also be vaccinated. On all these grounds, we are confident that we can complete the census uninterrupted.

When it comes to the twelfth census, what improvements have we made in terms of international practice and standards, or where are we compared to international practice?

Nepal’s census is not only for Nepal, it is for the world. Nepal is also included in the world’s population. UN agencies are also watching the census. We do it according to international practice.

Although the census began 110 years ago, it was limited to headcounts till the fourth census, with no other figures. It was felt that we needed information on economic, social, and demographic conditions. We should keep adding the list in the questionnaire.

Age group, Total Fertility Rate, Infant Mortality Rate, Maternal Mortality Rate, Literacy Rate, Employment-Unemployment, etc. are all required. We do all these things. Nepal’s census is comparable to international standards.

In this process, the statistical system was improving. We also do a post-enumeration survey after the census. It does a major ‘measure’ of how many ‘errors’ occurred in the ‘coverage’ and ‘content’ of the census. This work should be completed within three to four months.

We are working on the use of technology from time to time, an adaptation of the questionnaire, preparation of manpower for the census.

As an employee of the Statistics Service, an expert, and currently the Director-General, what improvements do you see in our census?

This is a very interesting question. I entered the service in 1996. I participated in the census of 1991 as a student. I have been involved in administrative work in the census since then.

When it comes to reforming, it also comes down to our manpower and economy. We also have a big burden on the census. People think that the more questions asked in the census, the more information comes.

We have yet to develop a method for using administrative records for accurate statistical purposes. We have done a lot of work though it has not met our expectations. The problem lies in the mentality that the more the questions, the better the census.

There are 80 questions in our census. Some questions are difficult. When there are many questions, time, quality and resources also come together.

The census in developed countries does not include so many questions. For example, in the USA, in the A4 size paper, they have a total of 10 questions. The respondent can answer in a moment. The USA does not lack skilled manpower, technology, and other resources but only 10 questions are asked in the census. There is a slogan – you give 10 minutes, I ask 10 questions.

Other necessary data should be produced in other processes. The census should contain only the questions required for the demographic data.

Attempts have been made to collect as much information as possible during the census in our country. This is not a bad thing at all, but the quality is also important.

There are many questions, how long does it take for an enumerator?

It takes an average of 25 minutes, at least 20 minutes. Larger families may take longer.

What do you call the general public as the Director-General of the Department of Census Statistics?

The census is to be conducted for the benefit of the common man. Census is the work of building a public property. It requires everyone’s ownership and participation. Everyone should give correct details.

The participation and support of political parties, people’s representatives, teachers, journalists, civil society, and industrialists are required. All information is kept confidential.

The main principle of the census is that no one should be left out, no one should repeat. At the same time, this time we said, ‘My calculation is mine.”

We have decided on the basic slogan of ‘Participation, National Census, 2021’.

Census data is used in all aspects of development, election, and inclusion to mention a few. I call for everyone’s participation and accurate information.