DURING a recent meeting chaired by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa reportedly said the army had shown its inability to provide 350,000 troops requested for the sixth population and housing census scheduled for March because of the operation in the tribal areas. A finance ministry source said the request to give their refusal in writing was turned down.
The census is a constitutional requirement. From the distribution of assembly seats amongst the provinces to NFC funds, the architects of our Constitution and federal structure considered the census a prerequisite for the judicious coexistence of the federating units.
Nations with citizens’ computerised databases such as the US, UK, China, even India conduct regular decennial censuses. The subcontinent’s first population census was held in 1881, and conducted every 10 years in the year ending on one. Pakistan’s first census was conducted in 1951, followed by census in 1961, 1972 and 1981.
But then autocratic mindsets and the desire to manipulate the facts emerged. The fifth census due in 1991 was not allowed till March 1998; the sixth scheduled for 2008 was delayed till 2011 but later scrapped after the house count.
Last year, the Council of Common Interests agreed to allow the sixth census in March 2016. While the census is a federal subject, the CCI decided the provinces should share the cost of Rs14.2 billion.
Yet only 14pc of the amount budgeted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and approved by the CCI has been released in the last 11 months. Holding a census in chaotic times is not unknown. The Indians have avoided ‘no-go’ areas, listing population for such areas based on projections of the previous census.
Conducting a population count in chaotic times is not unknown.
Previously, only during 1998 was the army engaged in conducting a census. An amount of Rs7.2bn of the current census budget has been provisioned for payment to the army for security and supervision. A source close to Mr Bajwa said that when it was indicated the census might be conducted without military cover, the PBS was advised by the army against the move.
Ironically, while parliament was preparing the 18th Amendment, the bureaucracy was planning to set up a governing council for the PBS. In February 2010, the deputy DG, statistics division, told officers of attached departments in Lahore that the PBS would have a ‘governing council’ comprising three government and four NGO representatives to identify objectives, frame policy guidelines and oversee the bureau’s working in an effective manner.
Currently, except for Dr Ishrat Husain, all other council members are from Punjab. The PBS draws all six functional (executive) members from Punjab. This has caused heartburn in the other provinces, evident in the unanimous resolutions passed by KP and Sindh and the issue’s being raised in the Senate.
For 1998, the Pakistan Census Organisation had to use the Federal Bureau of Statistics’ data centre for processing returned census forms. But then UN agencies helped set up its own data-processing centres. To decentralise, one centre was established in Islamabad, the other in Karachi designated for Sindh and Balochistan. After a recent decision, all machines and equipment have been packed and shipped to Islamabad for centralised collection and data processing.
Moreover, both Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri and his predecessor Dr Malik Baloch have resisted a census in Balochistan. Even the appointment of a provincial census commissioner or census staff has not taken place. A senior bureaucrat in Quetta says the Baloch leadership has been demanding the expulsion of Afghan refugees. There are concerns that the inclusion of over a million Afghan refugees — most with CNICs — could marginalise the native Baloch.
Mr Bajwa, who retired as FBS chief statistician, has been reappointed as chief census commissioner in PBS. Similarly, other retirees with no census experience have been appointed as functional members and to other important positions, violating a Supreme Court decision.
These officers are responsible for actions that forced the government to scrap the 2011 ‘house count’ costing the exchequer Rs4bn. The ECP faced a fiasco after being given fresh census blocks for the 2013 constituency delimitations and 1998 population data to prepare the electoral rolls. No one at the PBS has been held responsible for such blunders.
Instead of being updated, census blocks delimited, physically verified by the revenue staff and duly notified in the official gazette for 2008 were scrapped last year; 176,000 new census blocks are being mapped from scratch that will require a huge verification exercise before notification. Physical anomalies identified during verification will result in more delays and additional expenditure. No one will be held responsible, while the nation will still remain far from the goal of having accurate population data.
The writer is a former KMC administrator.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2016