ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly was informed on Friday that the government could not go ahead with the planned census until the General Headquarters assured it of elaborate security and administrative arrangements required for the 18-day exercise.
Parliamentary Secretary for Finance and Revenue Affairs Rana Mohammad Afzal Khan, who was responding to a MQM-sponsored calling-attention notice, said the government was in touch with the military leadership and it would become clear soon whether the exercise could be conducted as scheduled.
The government had decided in the wake of a decision of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) to carry out the census in March this year. However, if the parliamentary secretary’s remarks are anything to go by, the same may not happen at least in a couple of months.
“As far as the civilian side is concerned all arrangements are in place to hold the census, but considering the precarious security situation in certain areas of the country, it cannot be held without deployment of military,” Mr Khan said.
Government hints at conducting the 18-day exercise in April or May, instead of March
The secretary said that if military authorities agreed to provide the required number of security personnel, the census could be held in April or May.
Without specifying the number of security men needed, he said the entire country had been divided into 166,800 census blocks and each block would need one civilian and one soldier besides the military deployment required for security.
A defence analyst pointed out that at a time when the army was already stretched thin because of its engagement inside the country and also at borders, sparing such a large number of troops would not be easy.
About other arrangements, the parliamentary secretary said that appointment of provincial census commissioners and master trainers, setting up national data centre and preparation of training manuals had been done.
Sheikh Salahuddin of the MQM criticised the parliamentary secretary. He said the government had earlier announced that the census would be held in March but how come it was now talking about doing the job in April and May.
In response, Mr Khan reverted to his earlier stance. He said that without military cover the government could not hold census. For one, he added, engagement of the army was a necessary requirement to provide credence to the exercise, and secondly the country was facing a fragile security situation.
Abdul Waseem, another MQM lawmaker and mover of the calling-attention notice, pointed to unconfirmed reports that some quarters were already busy manoeuvring results of the census. The secretary shot back, saying, “We must not pay heed to such conspiracy theories. And this is the sole reason the government has engaged the army for this exercise.”
In reply to a question as to how the government would conduct census in the strife-struck province of Balochistan, Mr Khan said that despite all inadequacies Balochistan was the first province to hold local government elections, and “I have no doubt, it will do the same to perform this national task”.
Dr Fouzia Hameed, also of the MQM, asked whether any action had been taken against those responsible for faulty housing blocks made for the 2011 census which was later cancelled on technical grounds but not before the exercise had cost the exchequer an amount of Rs3 billion.
The parliamentary secretary gave a brief reply, “It’s the CCI’s decision to hold the census afresh”.
Ms Hameed emphasised how crucial it was for the country to hold the census, be it for delimitation of national and provincial assemblies’ constituencies, distribution of national resources under the National Finance Commission and allotment of job quota.
It was in 1998 when the census was last held in the country.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2016