THIS week a year has passed since the Council of Common Interests debated the census as part of its agenda item, yet the demographic exercise is no closer to being held today than it was last year.
Everybody agrees that the last census conducted in 1998 is hopelessly out of date, and they all believe that this is a serious problem.
Consider the important issues that are built around the availability of census data: the NFC award, delimitation of electoral constituencies, seat shares in parliament, local bodies polls, targeted subsidies, and all other policy matters that rest on population data.
With the census data from 1998 practically obsolete, it is fair to suppose that all of these important matters today are actually based on suppositions that have no grounding in measured reality. Without a clean and impartial census, we don’t really know the face of the country that we are trying to run and govern.
A new census is badly needed but the obstacles that stand in its way are formidable and need to be acknowledged. At the heart of the foot-dragging is the demographic make-up of Sindh that nobody is very keen to talk about. With the massive population influx over the years, it stands to reason that Sindh has changed in important ways, and the ethnic balance as well as its share in the total population has undergone a profound transformation.
The Sindhi, Mohajir and Pakhtun populations can shift the internal balance of the province, while the influx of people into Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur over the years can alter the share of the province in the total population of the country.
Parties that seek their electoral fortunes in Punjab are reluctant to confront the real picture of what the new population shares of the respective provinces are, since this could affect NFC allocations as well as deal a psychological blow if Punjab’s share of the total population were to dip below 50pc.
Sindh is already reeling from a complex ethnic-based power struggle and any new numbers on the ethnic make-up would upset an uneasy status quo.
With no takers at the national level, the census exercise is being endlessly delayed. But continuing with a fictitious status quo and making policies for a population mix that doesn’t exist any longer is no solution either.
The ruling party must take the lead in initiating a credible move towards a new census, while finding a way to make the exercise agreeable to everyone.
Perhaps the case of India can serve as a model, where they decided to freeze all seat shares in parliament irrespective of what the census revealed. That compromise paved the way for a political consensus around a new census, and could serve as a model for Pakistan too.
One way or another, this government must ensure that a census is held during its term.
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2015