Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers

In Nepal, the problem with numbers is not unique to counting emigrants. Newspaper columnists, activists and researchers routinely manipulate or exaggerate figures in order to demonstrate the supposed seriousness of a problem. The methodological rigour required in collecting and using data is lacking. It is, therefore, advisable to use Nepali data only with utmost circumspection, in whichever field, be it poverty, water resources, environmental degradation, bonded labour, child labour, sex workers in Indian brothels, or labourers who migrate between India and Nepal.

The numbers of migrant labour on both sides are without doubt highly exaggerated. According to reports (see P.P.Karan et al, 1996, the Gorkhaland Movement Report, 1985/86, and numerous newspapers articles) there are anywhere between 1.8 million to 3 million Nepali migrant workers south of the border. Likewise, the writings of Indian scholars such as Jain (1982) and Madhavan (1985) and even the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (1981) or its spokesman (1989) have variously reported that there are between 800,000 and 3.2 million Indians in Nepal.

In bandying about such figures, it is clear that the scholars themselves lack understanding of the subject of their study. In reality, there are two types of Nepali-speakers who live and work in India: first are those whose ancestors arrived a hundred to three hundred years ago and are today by definition Indian citizens even though they speak the Nepali language and celebrate Nepali rituals and festivals. The other group of Nepalis are the migrant workers who go to India to work for a period and return at their convenience. Similarly, two groups of Indians live in Nepal: one which is settled since well over a century and naturalised, and another made up of migrant workers and small-scale businessmen who shuttle easily between the two countries.

Coming to hard figures, a look at Nepalís 1991 national census is instructive:

 1991 Census Economically Active Pop.(15ñ59 Years)Only males as Migrant workers
 18.1 million 9.6 million 4.8 million

The Nepali migrant labour pool in India is made up overwhelmingly of economically active males. When it is claimed that there are three million Nepali migrant workers in India, we are saying that more than 64 percent of Nepalís 15-59 years age group population are working in India. This is impossible. Even a figure of one million Nepali migrant workers in India seems high, considering that migration is age- and sex-selective it is mostly males between 20-45 who leave home for seasonal work.

Another reason for scepticism is that there are many hill and tarai districts of Nepal which do not send males to India as seasonal workers. This decreases the migrant pool even further. It also has to be kept in mind that the 1991 Nepali census reported a total of only 658,290 people absent from the country for more than 6 months. Fully 90 percent of this population went to India, and 83.2 percent were males.

To reach their conclusions, some researchers have relied on figures supplied by Nepali organisations in India. This writerís own experience with such organisations is that they lack both the resources as well as methodological background to carry out a proper survey of Nepali migrants. Additionally, there is the possibility of built-in bias as it is in the interest of these organisations to claim large numbers.

The 1971 and 1981 censuses of India reported a Nepal-born population of just over half a million (1971 census: 526,526 and 1981 census: 501,592). Likewise, the Nepali census of 1981 and 1991 reported the India-born population and Indian citizens in Nepal as follows:

 Census India-born Pop.% of total foreign bornIndian citizens % of total foreign citizen
 1981 222,278 95.0 116,755 24.2
 1991 418,982 95.3 68,489 75.7

While no figure of Indian migrant labour in Nepal is thus far available, it is clear that the figures given by various scholars are quite unrealistic. One reason for the wrong estimates is that many Indian scholars tend to consider the Tarai´s ethnic/caste groups as Indian even though they may be Nepali citizens.

It is a serious drawback when scholars who make confident use of numbers refuse to divulge the methodology used in collecting the data. What, for example, were the drawing samples, the time allocated for research, and the specific questions asked of the informants? When it is clear that the scholars have not bothered with these critical issues, the source must be considered suspect. It is unfortunate that researchers with such poor output even on a matter of grave geopolitical implications have no accountability and are able to escape liability for providing spurious data.

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Himal Southasian