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Rapid population decline of Tibetan communities in Nepal

KATHMANDU: Ethnic Tibetan communities that have thrived in Nepal's rugged mountain environments for ages are now facing a rapid population decline, according to a recent study. A study entitled “Depopulating the Himalayan Highlands: Education and Outmigration From Ethnically Tibetan Communities of Nepal” by International Mountain Society said that the outmigration of young people, low fertility and crude birth rates, and population aging raised the spectre of population decline in the highland dwellers. The research which studied the demographic compositions at Nubri and Tsum Valleys in Gorkha district, and Mustang district also found that outmigration is in increasing order as youth are sent by parents to distant boarding schools and monasteries for secular and religious education. Researchers representing Dartmouth College, Washington University in St. Louis, Case Western Reserve University and Oxford University further noted that the most striking feature was the dearth of younger people, especially in the 10–14 and 15–19 age groups with respect to the de facto population. “In some villages in Mustang, survey recorded not even a single child aged 10–14 in residence.” 

According to projections, if 20 per cent of outmigrants return then the percentage of the population aged 0–14 will drop from 31.4 per cent to 12.3 per cent in Nubri and Tsum, and from 17.3 per cent to 10.3 per cent in Mustang. The villages of the future will have a noticeable dearth of young people, the study added. One of the four authors of the study, Dr Buddha Basnyat of Oxford University Clinical Research Unit told THt that the study mainly tried to discuss major four concerns: how will households maintain an adequate labour force to ensure agricultural production; how will outmigration affect the family-based care system for the elderly; does the pattern of outmigration affect social and economic inequities in these Himalayan communities; and what effects will the migration pattern have on human capital. “In the case of wealthy nations the driving force is sustained low fertility, whereas in the case of Nubri, Tsum, and Mustang the driving force is the outmigration of children, a phenomenon that will subsequently impact fertility and cause population aging,” Basnyat said, referring to the study findings. Among the cohort of females that is just entering reproductive age (age 15–19), 69.2 per cent live away from their natal village; the vast majority of them are either currently in school (70.9 per cent) or nuns (19.9 per cent), according to the study. “In any event, their children will most likely be born outside of their parents' natal valleys.

As for nuns, most will bear no children due to culturally sanctioned celibacy.” Regarding women aged 20–29, the cohort that typically has the highest age-specific fertility rate, a small percentage of migrants from both areas is currently married, a significant percentage from Nubri and Tsum (but not Mustang) are nuns, and marriage within the villages is far from universal (61.2 per cent in Mustang and 25.4 per cent in Nubri and Tsum are currently unmarried) resulting in a low percentage of women aged 20–29 who are married (28.6 per cent in Mustang, 46.1 per cent in Nubri and Tsum). Although the persistence of high fertility has contributed to a 15 per cent increase in the de jure population, the Tsum and Nubri villages have experienced a decrease of 7.9 per cent in the de facto population as a result of outmigration. Similarly, decennial censuses revealed a decline between 2001 and 2011 in Mustang district's population, it added. “The lack of employment opportunities for educated individuals is one disincentive to moving back home. In addition, a permanent return to the village can be stigmatised among those in their 20s as it is considered a failure to parlay education into a successful career.”

As per the projection noted in the study for Nubri and Tsum the total fertility rate starts at 5.0 births per woman and then reduces by 0.5 births per woman each 5-year interval before stabilizing at 3.0 births per woman, life expectancy for males and females starts at 50 years then rises 2.5 years each 5-year interval before stabilizing at 65, migration occurs only in the 5–9, 10–14, and 15–19 age groups, and net outmigration is 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent, and 2.5 per cent of individuals per year for these age groups, respectively. “For Mustang the total fertility rate starts at 3.0 births per woman and quickly stabilizes at 2.5 births per woman, life expectancy for males and females starts at 55 years, then rises 2.5 years each 5-year interval before stabilizing at 65, migration occurs only in the 5–9, 10–14, and 15–19 age groups, and net outmigration is 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent, and 2.5 per cent of individuals per year for these age groups, respectively,” the study projected. 

Highlights of the study findings: 

· Outmigration from mountainous regions is generally driven by young people seeking higher education, employment, or military service.
· The high percentage of very young outmigrants distinguishes the demographic situation in Nubri, Tsum, and Mustang from patterns found elsewhere in the world. 
· Projections foreshadow obstacles to the long-term viability of Nepal's ethnically Tibetan highland communities. 
· In some villages of Nubri outlying fields are now being left fallow due to the dearth of youths who are tasked with guarding crops against marauding bears and langurs. 
· The recent rise in incomes through the gathering and selling of yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis, also known as “caterpillar fungus”) in Nubri and Tsum and remittances in Mustang allow households that are cash rich but labor poor to pay others to help with agricultural chores. 
· In Nubri we encountered several households consisting of elderly residents living alone who not only lamented their onerous work burden, but also that they could not convince any of their children to return to the village. 
 · People in Mustang recognize the demographic trend and have taken some action by bringing elderly to urban centers in the winter and establishing one nascent retirement home in conjunction with a Kathmandu-based monastery, which may contribute to further outmigration. 
· Nubri and Tsum households that have children who receive sponsorships to attend boarding schools have higher mean incomes and more land on average than those who are unable to send their children to boarding schools. 
 · Some educated males were compelled home because they are the household successor and thereby responsible for maintaining the continuity of the family. Women do not face similar pressures to return. In any event, at a time of unprecedented educational opportunities only a minority are returning home back to apply their skills and knowledge locally. 
· It is obvious that educational migration will have enormous impacts across the Himalayan highlands; what remains to be studied is how people will adapt to the emerging social and demographic circumstances.

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