Data speaks for itself: Nepal is progressing a lot more now than in the past

Several development indicators show Nepal is doing much better in education, GDP, infrastructure, tourism, life expectancy and many more. Here is a case-by-case description.

Dr Nirmal Kandel

  • Read Time 5 min.

Economic and social development is the backbone of any country. Many on social media, especially those elites (locally known as ‘SukilaMukila’), think the country is not progressing well because of democracy, federalism and Ganatanra as if we were one of the most developed and wealthy countries in the world during the monarchy. Instead of arguing with them, let us look at the facts and numbers. The country could indeed have progressed a lot so that we could have created more jobs and prevented the outflux of migrant workers. Let us review some of the development indicators for the country.

One of the critical areas of development is education. Yes, there are quality education challenges, but over the period, it has improved a lot. In 1981, the literacy rate was 21 percent; in 1991, it was 33 percent; in 2021, it was 71.15 percent. From 1991 to 2021, the increase is more than double. No wonder we witness a lot of brain drain to high-income countries.

In 1990, school enrollment at the primary level was less than 70 percent, but today, we have around 96 percent (2019). When people’s health improves, life expectancy (the average period that a person may expect to live) goes up and death rates (number of deaths in country) fall, which is valid for Nepal. In 1950, Nepali people lived 34 years on average; in 1990, they lived 53 years, and these days they live 72 years. Among our neighbors, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Bhutanese and Pakistanis live 70 years, 72 years, 76 years, 71 years and 66 years, respectively. In 1950, 28 people in every 1,000 people used to die, which improved in 1990 when 13 out of 1,000 people and in 2023, 6 out of 1000 people died. Two-thirds of the population used to smoke in 2000 (64.50 percent); these days, around 30.40 percent (2020) of the population smoke. If you look at the hunger statistics, it is equally revealing. In 2001 around 23.50 percent of people were hungry; now, only 5.50 percent of the population is hungry. Among South Asian countries, Nepal is doing better compared to India (16.30 percent), Bangladesh (11,40 percent) and Pakistan (16.90 percent).

These are a few examples of why the life expectancy of Nepali has increased, and it is due to education, health services and economic development.

The economy is a bloodline of any development. In 1960, the GDP of Nepal was 0.51 billion USD; in 1990, it was 3.63 billion USD, and now it is around 36.29 billion USD, which is almost ten times the increase since 1990. Many argue that 1/4th of the GDP comes from remittance (around 9 billion USD) at present and many youths leave the country. However, a few returned and started their work and small businesses. This is why the proportion of small-scale industries in the total industry is the highest in Nepal compared to other South Asian countries (SDG report). Many may not know that Nepal sends around 3 billion USD to India as remittance, and we receive around 1 billion USD from India. Many of the labor forces in Nepal at present are from neighboring states of India. I do not know why Nepali laborers prefer to go abroad instead of doing the same in the country. We need to do more research on this topic. The gap is happily filled by Indians who are making more money.

Many may have questions about the country’s debt; let us also look at debt. In 1991, the debt compared to GDP was 65 percent, the debt had reduced by almost half to 34 percent in 2010, and at present, the country’s debt is around 39 percent. It might have increased slightly due to COVID-19 and the global economic slowdown. How much does a Nepali earn regarding purchasing power parity in a year? In 1990 it was 1554.6 USD, and in 2022 it is 3922.08 USD. Nepal is known as a rich country for hydropower but has not tapped its full potential. However, the progress is still significant thanks to leadership and government. In 1996, 18 percent of the population had access to electricity; in 2020, it was around 90 percent. Let us not forget that it takes many years to construct hydropower plants, and it is equally challenging to manage the geopolitics of water. Recently, the government announced providing free electricity to people below the poverty line. Looking at the manufacturing rates, the progress is not comparable to electricity; however, there are improvements. In 1970, the country had a manufacturing rate of 0.03 billion USD, which increased to 0.21 billion USD in 1990; in 2021, it is 1.69 billion. It is still low, but we cannot negate these statistics.

About 20 years ago, Nepal’s road network was one of the smallest in the world, with a road density for both strategic and local road networks estimated at 13.7 km per 100 km2 in 1998 (DOR, 2002, 2017). However, by 2016, it had increased to 49.6 km per 100 km2 and continues to increase at a very rapid pace (DoLIDAR, 2016a). We need to improve the quality of roads in terms of safety and maintenance.

The tourism industry contributed about 6.7 percent to Nepal’s GDP, while its total impact was US$ 2.2 billion. In addition, in 2019, tourism supported over one million direct and indirect jobs or 6.7 percent of total employment. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted a lot, and tourism industries are reviving globally. However, we should note that number of tourist destinations, star hotels, services and domestic tourists has increased exponentially, which is a sign of the Nepali population’s improvement in purchasing power. Two new international airports in the most popular tourist destinations will connect more destinations in the coming days and tourism could become a major contributor to the country’s GDP.

Significant achievements since 1991 and 2006 are the improvement in equity, social justice, inclusion, diversity, freedom of speech, right to information and secularism. For example, the number of seats held by women in the national parliament is one of the highest in South Asia. There are still many challenges to improving equality, equity and justice regarding gender, income and ethnicity. The increasing number of voices against casteism, gender imbalance and abuse, income inequalities and under-representation of marginalized populations in key roles and responsibilities are signs of improvement and awareness of human rights, equity and justice. More voices from underprivileged people are common, which irritates many of these ‘SukilaMukila’ primarily from the Khas-Arya group.

This article is neither trying to undermine our potential to develop nor hiding incompetency, irresponsibility and irregularities of us (leaders, workers, professionals and every citizen). Despite these and resources, the country is not doing as bad as ‘SukilaMukila’, and anti-democratic groups reflect blatantly. We can do more, but every citizen has that responsibility. Let us not forget that leaders, bureaucrats, professionals and laborers come from Nepali citizens.

[Note: Data used in the article is from the publicly available sources. (From Dashboards like Macrotrends, SDG Gateway and online sources.]

A medical epidemiologist and anthropologist, Dr Nirmal Kandel is also a member of Nepal Medical Association. The views expressed here are strictly personal views of the author.