Did the 2001 Census of Population achieve its objectives?

by W. A. A. S. Peiris
Retd. Director of Census & Statistics
The objective of a census is to take an inventory of a country’s resources and characteristics at a given point of time at regular intervals. In Sri Lanka a census of its population its main resource has been taken every ten years, since 1871 with a few interruptions. One such interruption was in 1991. The long overdue census of population was taken on 17th of July this year. The Department of Census and Statistics has to be commended for this attempt. However, the department was able to completely enumerate the population in only 18 districts out of the 25 districts that covered the country. It had not been possible to conduct the census operation in the districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. No enumeration had been done in those districts due to the threat from LTTE.

However, prior to the enumeration a listing of buildings and households in a schedule known as the F1 Form was carried out by the department and I am informed the LTTE had shown an interest in this operation. I feel the LTTE as well as some other political parties realized that the census information would be harmful to them as it will give a correct account of the distribution of the population in these districts. It will undoubtedly show a reduction of housing units which in turn will give a low population count and this may lead to a reduction in the assistance these districts receive (which, I believe, is based on the population-numbers) as well as a reduction in the political and educational representation at the national level. Other districts that were not enumerated fully are Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Certain Divisional Secretaries (former A.G.A.) areas had been left out of the census enumeration in these districts. The omission in the enumeration in these seven districts cannot be rectified now as it is a de facto census. As a result, we will not have a population count for the entire country. In that respect as I had pointed out earlier in an article in June this year on the 2001 population census, a census must cover the entire country at a given point of time to be called a national census.

The department of Census and Statistics had tried their best to conduct the census to cover the whole country but they had to limit it to cover only 18 districts completely and put out early two publications giving preliminary census results - one on the 18 districts and the other a very useful publication on the city of Colombo. The population of the 18 districts that were fully enumerated was 16,864,544. We will not have a population figure for the entire country although the department made every effort to provide this information. In these 18 districts we will have a comprehensive account of the census data in the district reports.

Based on the preliminary census data the population growth except in Gampaha district due to in migration to the free trade zone the other wet zone districts have a low population growth with Kegalle having the lowest 0.6%. Colombo intercensual growth 1.3% is higher than the average 1.2% while Ampara with 2.0% has the highest growth. Ethnicwise the highest growth rate is in the Moor Population. A remarkable feature in the ethnic distribution of the population between 1981 & 2001 is the increase in the percentage share of Sri Lanka Moor population in the 17 districts enumerated, which I believe is due to the slowness in adopting family planning practices and early marriages they practice. Comparison with 1981 census figures show that except for the Moor population, in other ethnic groups the overall percentage has declined in the 18 districts. Like in the past the Sinhalese as an ethnic group show a decline which is due to the adoption of family planning practices as well as delayed and rising age at marriage. In the 1975 Fertility - Survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, one of the findings was that the Muslims and Hindus were far less motivated to use contraceptives than Buddhists and Christians. Another finding of this survey is generally fertility differentials seem to reflect a continuation of exposure to modern values and the impact of age at marriage. One may conclude that the pattern of population growth in ethnic groups in Sri Lanka is a continuation of this trend during the last twenty five years. A significant feature which goes to disprove the LTTE propaganda in foreign countries is - that the Tamils fear to live among the Sinhalese - the share of the Tamil population has increased in Colombo (1.2%), Ratnapura (1%) Galle (0.3%), and Kalutara (0.1%) districts, districts which have a high Sinhalese population.

The highest urban population is concentrated in Colombo district (54.7%) followed by Ampara (19.1%) and Gampaha (14.6%). It is difficult to understand the growth of the urban population in Ampara to achieve this second place. This will need further investigation. Perhaps it may be due to the redrawing of the urban boundaries with the abolition of the Town Councils. The highest estate population is in Nuwara Eliya district (53.3%) followed by Badulla and Ratnapura 20.2% and 10.1% respectively. Out of a total population 76.7% are Buddhists, 7.9% are Hindus and 8.5% are of Islam religion. 6.1% are Roman Catholics and 0.8% are Christians. The highest % of Hindus are in Nuwara Eliya district followed by Badulla. The highest % of Buddhists are in Hambantota district and lowest % is in Ampara 39.2%. At this stage of census data processing, age distribution is available of the population under 18 and 18 years and over. Nearly one third of the population (32.9%) is under 18 years. Lowest is for Colombo (27.1%) and highest for Ampara (39.8%). In 1981 the % under 18 was 41.6 shows a decline of 8.7 % points, this shows a narrowing of the population pyramid at the lower ages. When considering these figures one must bear in mind that these are based on 18 districts.

The department has released very useful information on the city of Colombo which covers the CMC area and consist of two Divisional Secretariat (DS) areas, Colombo and Thimbirigasyaya. This division took place in 1999, prior to that it was only Colombo DS area. The total population enumerated in the Colombo city on census night was 642,000, in 1981; it was 588,000. However, during the day the population swells in the city of which we have no accurate figure and they make use of the facilities which the MC provides.

However, the growth of population in the city can be seen in these census figures. In 1881 - 110,000, 1901 - 154,000, 1953 - 426,000 and 2001 - 642,000. The population of the city is more than quarter (28.7%) of the district population (2,234,146).

The highest growth was in the first half of the last century. Since then it showed a decline as there had perhaps been a tendency for people to commute to the city due to the availability of cheap transport rather than to migrate into the city as life time migrants. In more recent times the tendency appeared to be for life time migrants to the city preferring to settle down in the periphery due to the high cost of city settlements. The opening of a large number of housing schemes in the city outskirts is a clear index to this trend. The annual average growth rate of the city population for the last two decades was 0.4% the lowest, a decline in growth a feature of the second half of the last century. Between 1901-1911 and 1946-1953 intercensual periods it went up to 3.2% and 2.4% respectively, the highest recorded. The city of Colombo is the most densely populated city in the country having 17,000 persons per sq. kilometer. One hundred years back it had only 6,000 persons. The city population under 18 years is 28%, Colombo and Thmbirigasyaya DS divisions having 30 and 25 percentages respectively which shows Colombo DS is having a younger population perhaps due to larger families, a reflection of the ethnic composition in this area. Ethnic composition for the city is 41.4, 28.9 & 23.9 percent Sinhalese, SL Tamils and SL Moors respectively. This ethnic composition varies between Colombo and Thimbirigasyaya. Colombo DS area is 31.0, 31.1 & 31.8 percent Sinhalese, SL Tamil & SL Moors respectively, showing an almost equal share for these three ethnic groups while in the Thimbirigasyaya DS Division the ethnic composition is 56.1, 25.8 and 12.5 Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamils and Sri Lanka Moors respectively.

Mattakkuliya Ward has the largest population (34,082) and highest growth (74%) in the 1981 to 2001 intercensual period among the 47 Wards of the Colombo city. High growth of the population in this Ward may be attributed to the migration of SL Tamils, Muslims and students for technical studies during this period. Borella North is the second largest in population size having 24,000 people with a second highest growth of 35%. However, the Wards located to the north in Colombo DS area such as Mattakkuliya, Modera (17,266). Mahawatta (19,922), Maligawatta West (20,348), Grandpass South (19,238) and Fort (18,006) which includes Pettah have a high concentration of population and due to its relatively small size areawise (excluding Fort and Mattakkuliya) it shows a high density.

An interesting feature in Fort Ward is the high sex ratio (i.e. number of males per 100 females). It has 16, 390 males to 1,616 females and having a high percentage of 18 years and over people (16,644 to 1,362). However, in the city of Colombo there are 342, 500 (53.4%) males and 299, 500 (46.6%) females which shows the male dominant migration to Fort Ward area is not seen in other Wards. Another feature in general is the city of Colombo which had in the past a high sex ratio is showing a downward trend. It was 130 in 1891 increased to 173 in 1946 and since then declined reaching an all time low of 103 in 2001 census. This trend is also seen in Colombo district due to the increased migration of females for work in factories and studies at higher educational institutions.

The population is not evenly distributed throughout the city. Most of the Wards in Colombo DS Division are highly populated with 21 Wards having over 10,000 persons while Thimbirigasyaya DS Division has only 14 Wards. In terms of population density by Ward, Wards in Colombo DS Division are high when compared to Thimbirigasyaya DS Division.

There are about 120,000 housing units and 42,000 non-housing units in the city more than half are located in Colombo DS Division. In the Colombo DS Division Pettah, Fort, Kochchikade North and South, Panchikawatta and Maradana Grama Niladari (GN) Divisions are commercial areas having mainly non-housing units while in Thimbirigasyaya DS Division Borella South, Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya and Milagiriya GN Divisions have a higher number of non-housing units showing a spread of commercial activities from the old locations in Colombo DS Division.

The city has 36% Buddhists, 27% Islam, 23% Hindus & 14% Christians. In Thimbirigasyaya DS Division 52% of the population are Buddhists, 21% Hindus, 15% Islam followers and 12% Christians. In Colombo DS Division about 25% are Buddhists, 24% Hindus, 35% followers of Islam and about 15% are Christians.

Although the recent census did not cover the whole country it will give a wealth of information on the 18 districts which were fully enumerated as well as the areas that were enumerated in the remaining four districts which were partly enumerated. Only in respect of three districts we will have no information except what information we can obtain from the F1 forms if and when they are made available to the public. Besides generating a comprehensive data base for the 18 districts which will be useful for planning and administration, the recent census will also provide an up to date frame to conduct sample surveys. In this respect the census has achieved its objectives in a limited manner.