As a once-in-a-decade event, the 2021 census of Nepal has been affected by the coronavirus as was the case of the 1952-54 census, when it had to be taken twice after an interval of two years due to heavy floods in many parts of the country that year

Population is both a liability and an asset for any given country. Since development is the outcome of the people's efforts by way of harnessing the natural resources or by maximising the human potentiality, a qualitative population is an asset for a country's development while an unhealthy and unproductive population stands as an impediment to national development.

This calls for a strategic population policy under a thoughtfully established institutional mechanism for managing the country's population to upgrade the quality of its people.

Nepal has borders with the two most populous countries of the world – China to the north with a population of 1.43 billion and India to the south with a population of 1.36 billion.

These two immediate neighbours alone make up 36 percent of the world's population whereas Nepal, with an estimated population of 29.64 million, has 0.37 percent of the world's population.

The first ever population census in Nepal was taken in 1911 with the sole purpose of finding the number of its healthy population capable of joining the Nepal Army, further aiming at sending a Gorkha Army contingent to assist the United Kingdom during the First Great World War from 1914-1918, when Chandra Shumsher Rana was Nepal's prime minister.

According to the census, the total population of Nepal stood at 5,638,749. The successive two censuses, taken in 1920 and 1930, revealed a declining curve.

But from the 1941 census onwards, which showed Nepal's population to be 6,284,649, the country's population has been seen growing rapidly.

The population of Nepal on June 21, 2021 was estimated by the UN Worldometer to be 29,640,965.

So from the 1941 hallmark census, Nepal's population has been taking an upward trend.

While all previous censuses were conducted on a mere head counting basis, the censuses taken from 1952-54 onwards are considered to be scientific, with improvement in each successive census over the preceding ones due to availability of more trained manpower and improved technology supported by better transport and communication facilities.

By now, Nepal has gone through 11 censuses, and currently would have been vigorously engaged in conducting its12th one had there not been the coronavirus pandemic.

As a once-in-a-decade event, the 2021 census of Nepal has been affected by the coronavirus as was the case of the 1952-54 census, when it had to be taken twice after an interval of two years due to heavy floods in many parts of the country that year.

Though different periodic development plans have envisaged the population component, beginning with the First Five-Year Plan (1956-61) and extending to all the successive plans, some with concrete plans while others just as a passing reference, it was only in the 3rd Development Plan (1965-70) that the provision of family planning services as part of the child and maternal health services was introduced.

Towards the end of the Fourth Plan (1970-75), the National Planning Commission (NPC) constituted a Task Force on Population in 1974, assigning it to develop a comprehensive population policy to be included in the subsequent 5thDevelopment Plan.

As the task force did what it was assigned to do, the government on its part responded by forming a Population Policy and Coordination Board under the NPC, entrusting the same task of policy formulation to be incorporated in the Sixth Plan as well.

This Board turned into the National Commission on Population (NCP), whose secretariat was to be handled by the secretariat of the NPC. Both the NPC and NCP were constituted under the chairmanship of the prime minister.

The census results of 1981, which recorded a 2.66 per cent annual population growth rate, as against 2.07 in the previous census of 1971, despite the provision of family planning and child health and maternal care services, alarmed the government.

It also drew the attention of Nepal's bilateral donors like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and multilateral donors like the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UN- FPA), among others. It forced the government to view and address the population issues from a multisectoral perspective.

Finally, the NCP was reconstituted with the prime minister as chairman, a full-time vice-chairman and secretary, and an independent secretariat to address the leading issues interwoven between population growth and whole gamut of development.

The NCP became one of the few national organisations of excellence, functioning both professionally and with leadership, which was unusual for institutions of Nepal. This was basically due to a pool of well-trained manpower and moderately equipped commission with USAID assistance.

However, in a whimsical decision of the inexperienced interim government, following the collapse of the Panchayat polity in 1990, the NCP was once again merged with the NPC, turning the whole erstwhile NCP Secretariat into a Population Division of the NPC Secretariat, creating an institutional disaster in integrating population issues into all components of development.

Later on, a separate Ministry of Population and Environment was created, which has now become the Ministry of Health and Population.

Such frequent institutional changes turned a professional organisation like the NCP to a bureaucratic organisation at the hands of an unprofessional group of personnel and high handedness of political party-affiliated activists.

The world population at present is calculated at 7.9 billion, an increase from the 5 billion in 1987.

Since 1987, July 11 has been observed as World Population Day in different parts of the globe by organising various activities with a view to making governments, media, academics, donors, charity organisations and civic society aware of the ill consequences of unplanned population growth. There is a need to strike a balance between population growth and pace of development.

A version of this article appears in the print on July 16 2021, of The Himalayan Times.