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Population census scrapped once again?

Updated September 01, 2015
The government announced its decision to hold the census in March this year. — Courtesy PBS facebook page
The government announced its decision to hold the census in March this year. — Courtesy PBS facebook page

KARACHI: A mammoth census exercise scheduled to be completed by March next year looks likely to be delayed, or even scrapped altogether.

The government announced its decision to hold the census in March this year. But five months later, Asif Bajwa, Director General of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) – the government body tasked with carrying out the exercise – confirms that “no funds have been released thus far” for the year-long exercise.

A highly-placed source at the finance ministry in Islamabad says the federal government is debating whether to scrap the census altogether. Instead, the government is weighing the merits of using population data from the Nadra database for planning and future resource distribution, according to the source.

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The census exercise had a budget allocation of Rs14.5 billion, out of which Rs6.9bn was budgeted for the PBS and Rs7.4bn was for the army for security and facilitation.

According to the finance ministry source, the PBS had budgeted Rs646 million for utilisation during the first quarter, Rs532m during the second, Rs5.8bn during the third and Rs66m during the fourth quarter. The second quarter was to begin in October, without any provision of funds thus far, meaning the exercise has not even begun in earnest.

In the second meeting to review preparations for the exercise, held on April 2 with Asif Bajwa in the chair, some decisions were taken regarding the schedule for the census, including an updated frame for rural areas.

“The big mauzas may be surveyed and blocks updated up to September 2015 with GPS device and with the help of 50 teams”, read the minutes of that meeting. There are 1500 mauzas with more than eight blocks each, and surveying them with 50 teams means 240 blocks will need to be surveyed by each team. The exercise could take many months to complete.

Decisions were also taken for urban areas, including making digitised urban area maps which “should be completed in the next three months”. That was back in early April.

Today, at the start of September, by when all this and more was already supposed to have been completed; the chief statistician admits that he is still waiting for the first instalment of funds to be released. “We hope to receive the first tranche some time next week,” he adds.

The long delay in the release of the funds is because of a couple of factors, according to insiders. For one, the government has lost interest in its own announcement made in March, and there is nobody making a strong push to keep the exercise on track.

And secondly, some sections have been arguing that the Nadra database is good enough for most policy purposes and a vast and sprawling census exercise is not necessary.

“When requisite data is available with Nadra it is hardly a national priority to waste billions over census, that too with budget deficits compounded by monsoons and IMF breathing down our neck,” says the source in Islamabad.

But the Nadra database is a poor substitute for census data, says Haris Gazdar, senior research fellow at the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi, which conducts regular social policy researches. He points out that although Nadra registration has become mandatory for adult citizens, there remain major gaps in the database. A lot of poorer and marginalised people, particularly women are still outside the Nadra database. Use of Nadra data will bias analysis and policy-making against those who are the poorest and most vulnerable to begin with. It will disadvantage regions where registration is low.

“While Nadra ‘B-form’ is supposed to include family data, reporting of births and deaths is even less comprehensive than adult registration. Once again the bias will be against the poorest and the most marginalised” if Nadra data is used as a substitute for census data, Haris Gazdar points out.

If that was not enough, using citizen’s right to privacy as an excuse, Nadra databases are kept in extreme secrecy thus remaining inaccessible to planners, researchers, academics and sociologists.

A census is a massive exercise and must be held every ten years according to the constitution. Census data plays a vital role in policy formulation, as well as execution of key state functions. It is used by the Election Commission for constituency reviews of national, provincial and local bodies’ elections. Federal resources are distributed under the National Finance Commission award on the basis of latest census figures. Provincial shares of seats in parliament are also decided on the basis of population share of the provinces. And population ratios provided by the latest census are used to establish the quota for federal jobs.

Additionally, the census provides planners a comprehensive understanding of the demography and socio-economic condition of the people in various parts of the country. The first four decennial censuses were held on time starting in 1951. The fifth census to be held in the country was scheduled for 1991 and finally conducted in 1998.

Absence of a census complicates many other tasks the state needs to complete. For example, former Secretary ECP, Kanwar Dilshad, says the main reason for the 2013 election fiasco was that the returning officers were required to get such a high number of ballot papers printed “because 2013 elections were conducted on the basis of an outdated census, without fresh delimitations”.

The PBS has been relegated to the status of a sub-department, headed by a retired federal secretary and other retired officials including a vice chancellor as members of its ‘governing council’ and a limited number of trained census staff. It needs major re-strengthening and reorganisation. To begin with fresh delimitations of census-blocks may be on order. But most importantly, greater autonomy with due representation from all four provinces and a reporting line going directly to the national parliament is needed. Any delay or scrapping of the census risks polarising the federation even further.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2015

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