Published in Pakistan Observer:

The last census in Pakistan was conducted in 1998 since then there are mere estimates that Pakistan works with for policy making. Constitutionally Pakistan is bound to conduct census every 10 years. The March 2017 census are taking place after a gap of two decades. They were delayed twice, this is also happening after a lot of feet dragging by the civilian government and on very strict directions of the Supreme Court at the cost of Rs. 18 billion. 200,000 soldiers will help 91,000 civilian enumerators with the census process, who will go to every house to get the form filled. The census organization was established in 1950 as a part of Ministry of Home Affairs. Post several shifts as per the (re-organization) Act 2011, it was placed under the statistics division. Thus the conduct of the census is the responsibility of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. The sixth population and housing census is due to be conducted from 15th March to 25th May, 2017 and will be conducted under the legal cover of the same act. Providing wrong information will carry the fine up to Rs. 50,000 and possible six months imprisonment.

Census are being carried out after a gap of 19 years, in the supposedly sixth most populous nation in the World. The demographic and social landscape of Pakistan has completely changed over the last two decades. Rapid urbanization, population displacement due to security operations, natural disasters and the rising number of youth has had a tremendous impact on settlement patterns. The population census has been resisted for many years. The direct implications would be for resource distribution and electoral politics. But Pakistan has also lost out on the opportunity of maximizing on its much talked about Youth bulge. The demographic transition of Pakistan is an unrecorded, untabulated phenomenon, thus the policy making is a function of adhocism. According to a research report by UNDP, every year Pakistan needs more than 1.5 million jobs for the youth entering the work age.

Apart from policy making, an important dimension of the census is that the entire concept of representative democracy is based on it. Professor Gordan De Jong, a senior scientist in Pen State’s Population Research Institute said, “The census ensures that each community gets the right number of representatives in government.” It’s a must for equitable distribution of funds.

The new census, as per some informed guesses would atleast add 40 million people in the province of Punjab alone. This may have an impact on PMLN monopoly over the Punjab province. The making of new provinces in Punjab may become inevitable. The rising number of Pashtuns in Karachi and declining number of Urdu speaking population will also have political ramifications, many would like to avoid. MQM has already moved the Supreme Court (SC) over alleged rigging in the procedure of the population census, including Karachi. They claim that the blocks in urban areas of Sindh were counted as 47.65 per cent during the last census but for the upcoming census, the blocks have been reduced to 45 per cent. Farooq Sattar accused the government of “pre-census rigging.” He also said that those who migrated to the province during last 18 years for economic purposes should not be termed permanent residents of Sindh. Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah has written a letter to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar pointing out the issue of non-transparency in the census. Taj Haider said, while the personal information of the people gained through this exercise should not be disclosed, the general information must not be kept as a secret. It should be disclosed as to how many people have been included in a block. This is an indicative of the making of conflict between MQM – PPP and MQM – ANP and perhaps even PTI. Baloch nationalists have also voiced their reservations, Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal being the most vocal. One million migrants are present in Baluchistan. The Baloch nationalists fear that they may be marginalized by Pashtuns. At least two senators raised questions over the census process, saying the exercise was being held in a non-transparent manner. The remarks led to Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani’s directions to the government, to appoint a minister with whom a special committee of the house could take up census-related complaints.

The unaccounted for population growth in Pakistan becomes even more problematic because of security issues. The policy makers of Pakistan are clueless about the Afghan, Bihari, Bengali, and Burmese, to name a few communities now living permanently in Pakistan. The rise of religious seminaries and the students coming there from Middle East, Africa and even Europe are also not formally accounted for or recorded. The Afghan refugees will be counted in the exercise but many are not registered as refugees. However, the fact that all the persons living in Pakistan will be in the scope of the population census, including dual nationals and diplomats is a step in the right direction.

The census are not just about statistics, political status quo stand to be challenged, the political subtleties of both rural and urban Pakistan will now be backed by tangible statistics. The National Finance Commission and Indus River System Authority distributions are even now contested for not being population sensitive. A transparent census must be carried out in Pakistan. The quality of the data must stand above reproach and suspicion. It will not only have a profound impact on the distribution of Federal resources and the allocation of legislative power in the National Assembly, but will give insights into urbanization trends and can be very effectively used for devising law enforcement strategies, security infra-structure and better local governments. However, it may also call for a major re-alignment. Are the political parties of Pakistan prepared to let go and work with new ground realities and more importantly census are being held because of the Supreme Court’s intervention and military support. Will Pakistan need more of the same to also use census results? The only insurance is transparency, immediate release of the data and its availability to research communities. This could be a resolution mechanism, as conflicts are in the making. And last but not least, the provincial governments should participate in ensuring a credible consensus. They are now stake-holders. Blame game should be avoided at all costs.

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