Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam talks about a contentious
Census Blues – Pakistani polity has gone badly off-track and there is hardly any matter in the country that can be tackled and solved with consensus and amity. A crucial national requirement such as census has become a controversial matter and it is contested by various stakeholders on one ground or the other. It is quite obvious that unless there is broad-based acceptance of the ongoing census the expensive and time-consuming head count may become an exercise in futility as happened with the failed such exercise in 2017. This exercise has already become periodic in nature revealing the deep doubts harboured by the stakeholders in its honesty of intention and accuracy of results. It is well-known that census is a sine qua non for undertaking national development projects and in its absence this exercise is not possible.
As a matter of fact people have lost trust in the intention of the state as far as transparency is considered. They do not believe that the government agencies are capable of gathering correct data and then tabulating it efficiently. To the chagrin of the relevant state authorities both parties within the coalition government as well as those in the opposition had raised doubts about the census. Apparently the most rumpus has been created by MQMP that has threatened quitting the government if its reservations about the census are not sufficiently addressed. The MQMP leaders emphasise that Karachi’s population has been massively undercounted claiming that the city’s actual population is around 35 million, whereas the provisional results put the numbers at just over 16 million. The party accuses the ruling PPP of systematic alteration of population figures with a view to manipulate elections in the province. Interestingly it is not only the MQMP that is criticising the census as Sindh’s chief minister was quoted as saying that his administration would surely reject the results.
Meanwhile, JUI-F, another government ally, also questioned the apparent decline in urban Sindh’s population. In the opposition camp, the Jamaat-i-Islami has threatened protests if its reservations about Karachi’s allegedly reduced numbers are not addressed. It is not just about Karachi or urban Sindh. Figures for the whole country need to be accurately represented, especially when population carries so much weight in the NFC Award, determines seats in parliament besides many other matters. While there is a debate amongst experts to reduce the weightage given to population, the fact remains that the census numbers should be a truthful representation of Pakistan’s demographic realities. Moreover, during a recent so-called combing operation in Karachi it was discovered that several high-rise buildings were left uncounted. It is imperative that the relevant authorities should engage and share data with political stakeholders and experts so that any flaws in methodology or other anomalies can be identified and rectified.
It was precisely the dissatisfaction with the census process that compelled the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) to extend the digital census for another fortnight. The digital census, previously scheduled to conclude on 30 April, would be extended till 15 May and it was pointed out that the need for the extension was felt after it emerged during the exercise that Karachi and Lahore populations showed little increase since the 2017 census. The PBS requested political parties to identify the areas that had not been covered by census teams. An official announcement issued after the meeting showed that 237.448 million individuals had been counted in all the four provinces, an increase of 29.768 million since 2017 when the tally was 207.68 million. So far, 54.138 million people have been counted in Sindh, 116.442 million in Punjab, 39.315 million in KP and 19.713 million in Balochistan.
It was widely mentioned that the census should be undertaken using modern technological tools and for this purpose digital methods were employed through an optional self-registration that began on 1 March with the aim to collect data for a period of one month and in this respect more than 120,000 enumerators using tablets and mobiles were put in place while it was expected that this measure will make the process more accurate, transparent and credible. It is pointed out that digitising population count is used widely from the United States to Estonia as it streamlines the process, improve accuracy and rein in cost increases. Human Rights activists said that the new digital process should be made as accessible as possible to include previously excluded or undercounted groups such as transgender people and ethnic minorities.
The contention surrounding the census process is not new as it has been subjected to chronic disagreements before. The census of 1991 was not carried out although it was mandated that it should be carried out after a decade. Similarly, 2011 census was aborted at the stage of house counting and on both occasions the data deviated from the previous trend by a wide margin and was considered unrealistic. Though the census is tied with economic and political matters in Pakistan yet all previous dispensations have found it expedient to issue NFC award, allocate parliamentary sets and quotas for government positions. It is widely known that NFC is the biggest attraction for both the federation and the provinces though after the seventh NFC Award, issued in 2010, three other criteria besides population were added to make it more inclusive. However, the population factor still has a large bearing on the award because population has an 82 per cent weightage in the award.
As was the growing tendency, the census was held in 2011 but was challenged and was ended at the stage of house counting as it was noted that the course it was following was certainly not normal. In 2017 census Sindh rejected the data by challenging the questionable average family size in the province. This prompted a discussion and a decision by the Council of Common Interests to conduct a fresh census within five years as against the normal span of ten years. As the census exercise was liable to be frequently contested therefore the then government announced carrying out this exercise by means of applying digital tools and doing away with paper. Here the process faced technological difficulties increasing the gulf in the credibility factor with many stakeholders not agreeing with the method adopted and the difficulty soon embroiled the entire process in controversy. It was quite obvious that the data collection process was badly disturbed making the Sindh government to publicly warn that they would not be satisfied unless the entire process was reset. It was also noted that some data collected at the preliminary stage was also not considered satisfactory by some stakeholders.
Though the process of census on the track but it remains under clouds of doubt and it is not clear whether the results of this exercise will be roundly accepted. It is indeed disappointing to note that successive administrations have failed to successfully and satisfactorily hold this exercise reflecting the rising levels of mistrust and inefficiency prevailing in the country. With the election fever rising up it is problematic to see that the base of elections i.e. delimitation of constituencies could not be undertaken threatening the impending electoral exercise. It is emphasised that the census exercise is undertaken with due care so that an important national objective is achieved. The Weekender
Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam is an educationist with wide experience