NOBODY ever said that the population census would be an easy exercise. Now that the time has come to deliver on a promise that was made last year to hold the population census by March 2016, suggestions are being floated that the exercise needs to be postponed.

The latest such suggestion has come from Sardar Akhtar Mengal of the BNP in Balochistan. He has argued that the security situation in his province is not conducive to holding such a large exercise, and that the presence of a large number of Afghan refugees is an obstacle; that they should be ‘repatriated’ before the population count.

Take a look: Need to create awareness of census stressed

The chief minister of Balochistan and his predecessor have made similar arguments. Earlier, the government hinted that the exercise might prove difficult to carry out according to schedule because of the large number of troops required, which the army apparently cannot spare at the moment given its commitments in the anti-terror operations in the country.

The census commissioner had told the media in January that he might need more than 350,000 troops for the exercise — one for each of the 167,000 census blocks and more for overall security of the military personnel.

These hints and suggestions regarding the difficulties facing the exercise are coming far too late in the day. The announcement to hold the census was made in March last year, and we have had a full year almost to prepare for the mammoth exercise.

Yet work didn’t begin in earnest until at least September, five months down the road, when the first funds for the immense logistics were released by the finance ministry. Delays have also hit the surveys of the mauzas and blocks along the way.

The security situation was known all along and it defies understanding why it was not addressed as a priority earlier. Likewise for the presence of refugees in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

If the state can identify who is and who is not a refugee for a repatriation exercise, why can’t it do the same for a census exercise? None of these reasons are convincing when raised so late in the day.

Not only this, the government is also displaying its famous disregard for broadening ownership and stakes in the complex exercise.

All but one of the members of the governing council of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, which is tasked with conducting the exercise, are from Punjab, as are all of the bureau’s executive members. Some of the provincial assemblies have passed resolutions complaining about this.

Having lost time, and failing to evolve a consensus among the provinces about the holding of the exercise, the government now appears to be looking for an excuse to back out of its commitment. Let’s hope this is not so.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2016

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