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28th March 1999

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Head hunt 2001

Computers will help Sri Lanka's next census to be held after a lapse of 20 years

By Feizal Samath

If some one knocks at your door around mid-night on a pleasant March night in 2001, don't be afraid. It is only a government enumerator, taking a physical count of the people who live in your home.

Sri Lanka is preparing for its first population census in 20 years, to be held in March 2001 and planners are determined to go ahead with it despite worries over the ongoing ethnic conflict, which cancelled the previous census in 1991.

"Whatever the problems, the crisis, we are determined to go ahead with the census this time since we need the data urgently," Wimal Nanayakkara, Director of the Census and Statistics Department, told The Sunday Times.

A population census is held every 10 years but the 1991 census was not held due to intense fighting in the north and the east. The last one was held on March 17, 1981 when Sri Lanka's population was counted at 14.8 million, up from 12.7 million in the 1971 census.

Current population estimates by the department put the population at 18.7 million and Nanayakkara said he didn't expect any radical change in these figures and estimates, when the census is completed.

"We have been compiling figures annually based on births and deaths and our population estimates are fairly up-to-date," he said.

The department has also monitored immigration and emigration patterns to collect data for its statistics. About 350,000 births are reported every year and by virtue of the fact that school admissions require a birth certificate, at least 98 per cent of births are recorded in Sri Lanka. The success of birth registrations and school admissions in Sri Lanka is much higher than in most countries.

The population census is one of the most comprehensive and complicated surveys undertaken by any country.

Mr. Nanayakkara, who was an assistant director of the department when the last census was held in 1981, says the whole exercise is exciting.

"Everyone in the department looks forward to this census with excitement, especially since this is being held after a lapse of 20 years," the census director said.

A population census - where each and every person in the country is counted - yields a lot of important data for the government in the provision of jobs, new schools, new hospitals, identifying housing needs and providing basic urban facilities. It also provides a labour force analysis and migration patterns.

Mr. Nanayakkara said that the 2001 census would also help secure valuable information regarding the availability of water resources and problems in the distribution of water to people.

Though the date of the 2001 census has not been set as yet, it would be held - as in the past - in the month of March. The census is normally held in March, which is a dry month, so that the thousands of enumerators won't have to grapple with wet papers when walking into homes and buildings to physically count people.

A total of 100,000 people, inclusive of the department's 1,350 employees and many others being higher school students or undergraduates, would be involved in the taking of the census, up from the 80,000 enumerators at the 1981 census.

But unlike in 1981, the department would be helped this time with data collection through computers and sketch maps.

Nanayakkara believes that the census would also reveal some interesting data with regard to migration patterns. "Migration statistics have always been a problem. Our current data is based on information collected at the normal arrival and exit points in the country. Often this data is flawed since we are unable to ascertain the categories of people who leave the country," he said.

The other problem is that there are thousands of Tamils who have fled the country, in boats to India, after ethnic riots in July 1983. Large numbers - according to some estimates, around 500,000 - have gone to the West as refugees through legal and illegal channels, since 1983.

"We have had 100 per cent support from the people in the past and except for a small percentage, everyone stays at home on that night and eagerly awaits the enumerator," he said. According to current data, there are 3.8 to 4.0 million households in the country.

The census is expected to cost 300 million rupees and the government has appealed for funds from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to help fund this exercise.

While the situation, with regard to the ethnic conflict, has improved in the north and the east when compared to what it was in 1991, Mr. Nanayakkara said that they were watching the situation and were hopeful that it would be much better in 2001.

The census director said that even if some areas were not accessible to enumerators due to fighting, data would be collected on the basis of an estimated head count.

"We are not, under any circumstances postponing the census this time," he asserted.

According to latest available Sri Lankan data, the country's projected population in the year 2031 is 23.1 million with the bulk of the people being over 60 years.

Mr. Nanayakkara says that an ageing population - the fastest growing in the world - is one of the problems Sri Lanka would be facing in the future. According to statistics, the number of those over 60 years is rapidly rising and is projected to be 22 per cent of the population in 2031 compared to eight percent in 1991.

Comparatively, the number of those below five years and up to 30 years is seen falling to 5.6 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively in 2031 against 9.6 per cent and 27.2 percent, respectively, in 1991.

"The growth rate is going down while the elderly population is going up," Nanayakkara said.

That night…

A population census takes at least three years to plan and preparations began last year for the 2001 census. A mapping operation, where sketch maps of the country's 13,000 grama sevaka or village-level divisions that encompasses the entire country would be prepared with boundaries, is scheduled to be completed by November-December 2000. Under this phase, each building or household would be grouped into one census block per enumerator and given a census number. Two weeks before the date of the census, enumerators will collect the information from each and every unit and also inform households to make sure that everyone is present on the night of the census. Between six p.m and 12 midnight on the census date, enumerators will visit households and physically count people. Nanayakkara said that they expect everyone to be present in their homes unless circumstances compel them to be elsewhere or abroad. Anyone, who is not listed under the particular household, but is physically present there on the day of the census would also be counted. The night's data is collected and, department officials working through the night - like during an election - prepare the data and by the next morning the country's actual population in that year would be known.

Since 1871

Sri Lanka has a history of population censuses since 1871 when the first census was held. Since then 12 censuses have taken place in the country. It was also the first country in the South Asian region to hold a census, followed by India in 1881, Nepal in 1911, Pakistan in 1951, Bhutan in 1969, the Maldives in 1972 and Bangladesh in 1974.

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