Tuesday, 19 October, 2021
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INTERVIEW

COVID-19 won't obstruct Census 2021: Dr. Regmi



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The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), a statistical agency under the National Planning Commission, is conducting the 12th Census from 9 May 2021. It has already concluded training for the facilitators, supervisors and surveyors and is mobilising more than 50,000 human resources in the campaign that happens every 10 years. This time, the CBS is employing information technology and reaching the ward offices for cross verification of the data. Against this backdrop, Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal talked to Dr. Hem Raj Regmi, Deputy Director General of the CBS. Excerpts: 

Could you tell us the importance of census for Nepal?

Census provides a national statistical base for various development work and demographic planning. The state needs statistics to monitor various provisions made in the Constitution and other laws. Periodic plans and elections need precise demographic statistics for better planning and their execution. Electoral constituencies are designed on the basis of the latest census while various programmes and facilities to various marginalised and deprived communities are also planned and announced as per its results. Likewise, the percentage of proportional representative system in the election of the House of Representatives is also defined on the basis of the last census. Various commissions formed to work for the development of certain ethnicities like Tharu Commission and Muslim Commission need the statistics for their work area.
This census is also important in a sense that it is the first census after the implementation of the new Constitution that transformed the country into a democratic republic. Now we have seven provinces and 753 local bodies. The census will create discrete demographic data of the local units. It will create social statistics like migration, disability, cultures and religions, economic data, access to public services, and absentee population.

Where has the preparation of the Census 2021 reached?

Census is divided in three activities: pre-census, census and post-census. We have completed all pre-census activities. The data collection work will begin in May. Estimation of budget, human resources and logistics, their development and management, and preparation of questionnaire are the pre-census activities. We have created the questionnaire and discussed it with various social groups at various locations and arranged all other logistics. Stationaries and other items required during the census are already dispatched to the most of the districts.
There are 87 census offices across the countries. Human resources are arranged from other government offices and are deployed in the field and census offices. Trainings for the main trainers and the district census officers are completed. Trainings are being conducted at the central, provincial and local level.
We are appointing 339 local census officers soon and providing training to them. About 8,000 supervisors and 39,000 surveyors are being hired. All the hiring is being done online. We have received four-time higher applications than we need. Altogether 55,000 human resource would be mobilised in the census. The census would cost about Rs. 4 billion, Rs. 1 billion less than the earlier estimation.
The government changed the allowance provisions for the staffers who are deployed for the census from other government offices and brought it down to 50 per cent from the earlier 100 per cent. It helped save about Rs. 1 billion. The field works would cost about Rs. 2.5 billion. Remaining would go to office management, monitoring and evaluation.

How do you assess the preparations for the human resources and technical preparations?

I already said that we are hiring people via online system. The CBS is also using technology in data collection although it is limited. We need about 50,000 tablets to make the census completely digital but there would be challenge for the post-census management of the equipment.
Although the CBS continuously conducts various kinds of censuses and surveys, they are not as large as the census and do not need the resources as par it. We have managed only 2,500 tablets. But in other surveys, Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) method is used. Tablets are used in the Kathmandu Valley while to get the data from the Nepalis working in the missions abroad would be collected via e-mail.

What is special about this census against the previous editions? Will it be special in terms of application of technology and data management?

Most of the elements of the census would be the continuation of the previous activities. But we have added some new questions and adopted technology. Questions on the access of service and facilities, poverty, birth registration, social condition of children aged below 16 years, details of third sexes and gender minorities, livestock and arable land, access to bank account and maternal mortality are included in this census. Likewise, the houses built with the help of government grant is also being collected this time.
The COVID-19 pandemic had prompted a sudden growth in the application of technology in every field including business, education and human relations. What types of statistics will this census generate about the expansion, reach and use of information technology?

We are asking questions on the access to telephone, radio, television and other information technological aspects. About 17 questions are related only to communication and information technology.

Experts have been predicting that the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will hit the nation soon. Will not it affect the census work?

We had scheduled pilot testing of the census questionnaire in March 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic affected it. It was organised later in July. Although there are concerns about the increasing caseload and advent of the second wave of the pandemic, the government is less likely to announce lockdown. Even if there is lockdown, the census wouldn't be affected much since only one surveyor would reach a family and the interview can be conducted outside the home in an open space by maintaining social distancing. We are providing health safety equipment like sanitizer, face shield and masks to the surveyors who are mobilised in the field. Unless there is a complete shutdown, the census won't be affected much.

Despite the growing literacy and application of technology, people seem less aware about the registration of vital information. The government and concerned agencies would have got timely and reliable information for development and other activities had there been a culture of timely vital registration. What is CBS doing in this regard?

There are various sources of statistics and among them administration records are the most reliable. We call it management information system. If the administrative records are up to date, there wouldn't be the need of many census and surveys. Vital registration is one of the important parts of administrative records.
Had there been proper registration of birth, migration, death and marriage, the census could have been conducted without questions on these topics. If the line ministries like the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security could provide latest and reliable statistics, why should the CBS be asking the questions on land and employment to the families in the census.
Developing countries have a weak performance in this regards. Better vital registration drastically reduces the questions in the census. We are asking 79 questions during this census while the USA asks only 10 questions and India asks 30 questions. Denmark had stopped conducting census as all the records are continuously updated via administrative records.
The CBS is also using community questionnaire in this survey which would be asked to the ward chairmen and officials to collect data and verify the information and check the consistency collected by the main questionnaire. This time, development information of major urban centres would also be collected. Likewise, information on the status of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and per capita indicators would also be gathered. However, there is no alternative to making the vital registration more efficient and up to date.

What types of census or survey is the CBS taking up this year?

We had started Nepal Living Standard Survey which is halted due to the pandemic.
This year, Industrial Census is being conducted which will be completed by March next year. The CBS will reach about 15,000 industrial establishments to collect detailed data about them. Immediately after the census, agricultural census will be taken. About 350,000 farmers' families would be contacted for it. A baseline survey for happiness is also in pipeline. Other regular programmes and small surveys will be continued.

You have recently rebased the national accounts and said that it would provide more accurate and reliable statistics. What is the basis of this claim?

Economic statistics are complex. They are difficult to collect as well because individuals and institutions do not give the true statistics. It has become an international norm. Therefore, we have to resort to the proxy methods like asking the expenditure instead of income. Official records like the salary, bank statement, remittances are also used in such surveys. Even after that, we can't be 100 per cent sure about the economic data. Therefore, this sector of study need continuous reform. The rebasing of the national accounts is one of such reforms. This change is made in the gap of five or 10 years. To make our statistics internationally comparable we must adopt the latest methods of data calculation. Our base year was almost 20 years old so we had to change it anyway.
So far as the reliability of the statistics is concerned, the indices might be up or down after rebasing. In our case, most of the sectors, like trade and information technology witnessed the growth. All the statistics that we publish from this year on, would be based on the new base year. Another rebasing would be made in 2025. The preparations for it would begin in 2023.

There are concerns that the government generated-statistics are poor in quality and less reliable, and many economists buy this notion. What does the CBS have to say about this?

The CBS is not the sole agency of the government statistics. It doesn't claim that all the statistics generated by the government across the country and across the sectors are accurate. The surveys and censuses conducted by the CBS are given the reliability score and confidence level. No study has reliability score below 95 per cent and if it has score less than that, we don't publish it. However, the sampling based surveys could have a bit higher errors. For the financial statistics remittance, we are dependent on the Nepal Rastra Bank, trade statistics are obtained from the Department of Customs, agricultural data are borrowed from the MoALD and education data from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Likewise, electricity and telecom related data are obtained from the Nepal Electricity Authority and Nepal Telecom respectively. Therefore, we cannot guarantee 100 per cent purity in the reports created on the basis of these statistics. But it is also true that the macroeconomic data are not 100 per cent correct nowhere in the world. Our statistical reports are of international standard, we have this confidence.

A few years back, CBS had said that it would develop itself as a data clearing agency. But no progress is seen in this direction. What impeded this?

The CBS doesn't have the capacity to handle the entire statistical system. When we have to rely on various other agencies for the data about trade, finance, agriculture, energy, information technology, the quality of such statistics is our concern as well. We are the consumer of those statistics for the Gross Domestic Product.
The clearance system for survey is proposed to maintain quality in such data. While official data is produced after technical discussion with the CBS, many other agencies do it on their own. Apart from the studies for academic purposes, all surveys covering national or provincial scope should be conducted with the knowledge of CBS. The new Statistics Act will facilitate us in this regard as it has a provision to have a secretary-level chief statistical officer to lead the organisation.