Pakistan Counts Costs of a Missing Census


Pakistani youth gather to form the biggest national flag ever shaped by people in Lahore on Saturday. Pakistan broke the world record by forming a national flag pattern with 29,040 people in Lahore, which was confirmed by Guinness World Records. Xinhua
Pakistanis form the biggest national flag ever shaped by people in Lahore making it to Guinness World Records. Xinhua

Pakistan hasn’t had a census since 1998. When will it realize that the development implications of using outdated demographic data are no less important than the political consequences?


[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ounting the population has been an intensely contentious and challenging affair in Pakistan. The last census was held in 1998. Since then preparations have occasionally been undertaken to hold the sixth census, but they turned out to be false starts.

When a nation fails to accurately count itself, important consequences follow – political, economic, social, and developmental. Three sets of questions will help to illuminate an issue of vital national importance. Why has it been so hard to hold a census? What are the political costs of not doing so? And what does that mean for development planning and resource allocation?

First, the challenge and politics of holding a census. Expected to be conducted once every ten years, Pakistan regularly held a census in its first four decades – in 1951, 1961, 1972 and 1981 (the 1971 war delayed the third census by a year).

The census due in 1991 was postponed when the house listing exercise, a precursor to the census, yielded figures widely regarded as unreliable. Lack of provincial consensus about the accuracy of the numbers reflected the politically contentious nature of the issue. As census figures determined the provincial share of national resources, suspect data was bound to produce discord.

For seventeen years this discord prevented a census. Finally the fifth census was held in March 1998, under a PML-N government, with the then finance minister Sartaj Aziz pushing hard for this to happen. As the 1998 census report points out, involving the military in the exercise allayed provincial apprehensions. Military personnel were inducted not so much for security but to assist the enumerators and be a counter check to ensure the integrity of the process.

Sixteen years have since passed but no census has been held. In 2006 preparations started but the census was put off in 2008 due to the army’s unavailability. In 2010, floods intervened.

In 2011 it was decided to go ahead, but developments that followed mimicked what had happened in the 1990s. In March 2011 a house listing operation was launched as the forerunner for the census planned for later that year.

Under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, census decisions have to be approved by the Council of Common Interests (CCI). When the house listing results were placed before the CCI, controversy erupted, mainly over figures from Sindh and Balochistan. With the integrity of the count in question, the CCI decided to postpone the census.

Later leaked to the press, some of these figures offer an insight into the apparent inaccuracies, which provoked the disagreements. The house listing operation showed the total population to be 192 million, whereas its own projected figure, and that of independent organisations, was 175 million. The discrepancy was mainly ascribed to numbers from Sindh and Balochistan.

Sindh’s population was counted at 55 million whereas projections, which factored in the annual population growth rate and variables such as migration, estimated this to be around 42 million. The discrepancy of 13 million made the number incredulous. Balochistan’s count revealed a similar inconsistency.

What was happening seemed obvious. Where rival ethnic groups were locked in a power struggle and fierce competition for resources – as in Karachi or Quetta – both sides, or the better organised one encouraged its community to inflate their numbers. Province-wide numbers shot up in consequence, with the exponential growth so out of sync with projections and on-ground reality as to make them suspect.

So charged was the 2011 listing exercise in areas where ethnic groups competed for power and resources that two official enumerators were shot dead in Karachi and another two injured. The security of census personnel thus emerged as another problem.

Since then, continuing deterioration of law and order presents a greater challenge for the much postponed sixth census. At a time when even the national polio campaign has been marred by violence and frequently suspended, the challenges for a census exercise have multiplied.

Meanwhile, the costs of not holding a census are evident. First, the political consequences. In the absence of a fresh census, the delimitation of electoral constituencies – national and provincial – continue to be based on the 1998 numbers, with minor adjustments made to boundaries, called constituency ‘re-description’ to accommodate new districts and tehsils/talukas.

Electoral demarcations therefore do not reflect present day ground realities. Rural areas continue to be overrepresented and urban Pakistan underrepresented, because in the past two decades the country has become much more urbanized. It is the most urbanized country in South Asia. As a top official statistician explained to me: “just tweaking the definition of ‘urban’ will now show an urban-majority Pakistan”. Even official definitions lag behind reality.

In 2002 the number of parliamentary seats were increased, but electoral demarcations still reflected the 1998 census. Outdated population statistics have reinforced the political status quo and privileged some political parties at the expense of others, even disadvantaging some. This strikes at the very heart of representative democracy. Electoral constituencies should be demarcated to reflect today’s Pakistan, not that of the past.

For this reason, the Election Commission of Pakistan has been in the forefront urging the government to order a census. As reported recently in the press, a summary addressed by the ECP to the prime minister says that a new census is necessary under the constitution for delimitation of constituencies, which should be undertaken well before the next general election. This reiterated the previous chief election commissioner’s appeal for a census ahead of the May 2013 elections. This went unheeded.

The ECP communication as well as a 2011 summary from the Inter-Provincial Coordination division urging a census, was placed on the agenda of the CCI meeting on 10 February. Unfortunately this was not taken up, perhaps for fear of provoking provincial disputes. But it remains on the CCI agenda.

The development implications of using outdated demographic data are no less important than the political consequences. Provision of services and the distribution of resources rest on accurate and up-to-date population statistics. Distortions are injected into development planning when figures are not current or based on projections, which is the case at present.

Provision of education and health services cannot fairly reflect public needs if planning is predicated on numbers or projections which do not, for example, take into account in-migration, shifts in the location of population, age structure and gender composition. A census does more than a head count. It provides valuable social indicators and economic characteristics – population growth and spread, rural/urban distribution, age structure, literacy, educational attainment, employment, migration trends and health indicators.

These are all critical for development planning, delivery of basic services and resource allocation for education and health facilities. Today the provincial education departments are compelled to use imprecise data for important spending decisions. This leaves open the possibility of planning errors, which in turn can leave people socially disenfranchised by denying them access to essential services.

Then there is the vital – and much contested – issue of division of provincial shares from national resources. The last National Finance Commission award rested on numbers from the 1998 census. Although this reduced the weightage of population as a basis of distribution, population remains the biggest determinant (82 percent). That makes it imperative for the division of resources to be predicated on current population numbers. Only a census provides these.

The controversies that led to repeated postponement of the census have much to do with the share of national resources that provinces claim and with intra provincial ethnic rivalries. But the census should not become an enduring casualty of such contention precisely because it serves as the fundamental foundation for making resource allocations and evolving plans that square resources with public needs.

It is ironic that Nadra (National Database and Registration Authority) is held up as an example of official capacity to collect and computerize personal information and identification of citizens using high-tech methods while a basic data gathering exercise cannot take place. It is time for the government and the CCI to stop procrastinating and approve the holding of a census as soon as possible.–Courtesy The News
All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

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