Census: now or never

Updated 23 Feb 2016


WHATEVER may be the logistical difficulties, or the objections of various elements in the provincial governments, the population census must be held on schedule. At the moment, there are growing signs that the government will announce a postponement.

However, thus far the difficulties cited in holding the vital exercise are not of a kind that should necessitate further delay. The window of opportunity is narrow and must be availed of.

Those objecting that there are not enough troops available for the exercise should realise that the situation in the country is not likely to show a dramatic improvement for a number of years, and the census cannot be delayed that long.

Those arguing that ground realities, such as the presence of large numbers of refugees or non-domiciled migrants in the provinces, make the census impracticable or unfair should know that only a proper count can establish population ratios and indicate the demographic trend of various language groups and ethnicities.

It is not possible, nor is it logical, to present the case that the census will make any given ethnic group a ‘minority’ in its own province given the presence of migrants or refugees. In the absence of a reliable census, the numbers don’t exist to make such an argument.

As the government prepares to take the decision to the Council of Common Interests, where the likelihood of the exercise being shot down altogether is quite high, it is worth asking a few important questions. For instance, why was no CCI meeting held for more than 10 months?

Why did the authorities wake up so late to the logistical demands of the census? Why has no effort been made thus far to build some sort of agreement among the various contending parties who are apprehensive about what a new census might find?

A now-or-never moment appears to be taking shape. This is perhaps the only year in which the present government can pull off something as large as the census exercise. Postponing it further will only mean that the same obstacles will be angrily debated all over again, only to pave the way for further delay.

By next year, the government’s focus would have shifted towards the general elections, and the next opportunity to even think about a population count will present itself only after a new government is in power after the 2018 elections.

Our policymakers cannot afford to ignore the matter till then. The urgency to sort out the differences, and develop out-of-the-box solutions to the shortage of army personnel and other logistical issues, is growing by the day. Much depends on the census — from socio-economic planning to resource allocation to the delimitation of constituencies.

Rescuing the exercise and ensuring it is held on time ought to now be the government’s priority.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2016