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Analysis: Census — the unfulfilled promise

Updated March 15, 2017

KARACHI: The Sixth Decennial Population and Housing Census is all set to begin today — after a cumulative delay of 26 years. The Constitution requires that the census data be the basis for political representation to the national and provincial assemblies, distribution of funds among the federating units, allocation of quota in federal jobs and for planning and research in the country.

A census is never merely about headcounts, it also provides information about the changing needs of the citizens. More than anything else, census results are supposed to ensure transparency and justice through equitable sharing of resources among the provinces, thus a robust tool for strengthening the federation.

But strangely in our country no one really seems to be interested in having the census held as scheduled. The exercise is collectively allowed to be delayed with mock protests. And even if one is scheduled, census is either scrapped before it actually starts or going through the initial phase or ‘house-listing operation’. During the last 25 years, the census has been scrapped after completion of HLO in 1991, 1993 and 2011 — each aborted exercise costing billions of rupees to the exchequer.

One of the reasons for the suspicions is that all the members of the governing council and the functional members of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics responsible for the present exercise are drawn from one province — Punjab.

At an estimated cost of Rs20 billion for a mere headcount of 200 million people, the present census appears to be exorbitantly costly yet technically deficient as it answers only 13 basic questions. In comparison, the India Population and Housing Census 2011 cost that country Indian Rs22bn while taking down 29 questions from a population of 1.3 billion. The present exercise does little to satisfy concerns of the marginalised sections of the population that fear further marginalisation as a result of census 2017.

In Balochistan, the presence of a large number of Afghan refugees, the ongoing brutal insurgency and an equally brutal counter-insurgency laced with freely operating jihadist groups have resulted in large-scale displacement of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people from the province to Karachi and other parts of Sindh. Baloch intelligentsia appears convinced that the result of the upcoming census will further reduce the political and economic clout of the natives in their own land. From the incumbent to past chief ministers, the Baloch political leadership has been reluctant to support the population and housing census.

In Sindh the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan both appear sufficiently troubled by the headcount that starts today. While both parties also appear convinced that Sindh may not get a genuine headcount they also appear to be extremely suspicious of each other due to the urban-rural divide in the province.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and his cabinet colleagues have raised, among many other issues, the question of Sindhis who may not get counted because of not possessing computerised national identity cards (CNICs). The CM and his cabinet have unanimously demanded that CNICs or no CNICs, everyone must be counted during the census.

However, the MQM’s concerns about the census are much more complex due to their long-existing grievance against the ‘quota system’. The MQM believes the quota system specifically targets its urban political base.

Established in 1973, the provincial quota system governs job allocations and admissions to colleges and universities. Ostensibly adopted to accommodate rural population with limited representation in government and higher education, the system was extended after completing 40 years in 2013 for 20 more years.

Yet according to a petition filled in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on behalf of the MQM-P, Dr Farooq Sattar and 12 others, Advocate Farogh Naseem compares the number of census blocks in Sindh being 52:48 (11,054 rural and 10,065 urban census blocks) during the 1998 census. According to the petitioners while massive urbanisation has taken place in Sindh, for census 2017 the census blocks ratio has further tilted towards rural Sindh with 55:45, which indicates a ‘conspiracy’ to rig Sindh’s population in favour of the rural segment and undercounting the urban population.

Incidentally, the above petition carries a factual error. The petition claims at paragraph 14C that out of 38,876, that is the total number of census blocks notified for Sindh, 21,381 have been declared rural and only 17,496 as urban. However, factually the number for rural was 17,496 and 21,381 as urban census blocks.

The current exercise might satisfy the Supreme Court order telling the federal government to fulfil its constitutional responsibility of holding census. However, the subsequent ruckus is the ultimate result of an ill-conceived exercise which does make the people acutely aware of the dangers to their socio-political and economic interests. But due to a lack of political debate, and the ensuing environment of distrust, it may weaken the federation further.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2017