ON Friday, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics shared a provisional results summary of the country’s sixth population census. The headline result is that in 2017, this country (excluding Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) hosts 207.77 million people, up from 132.3m in 1998. Between 1998 and 2017, the population grew at an average annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent, which is only 0.29pc lower than the same figure between Census 4 (1981) and Census 5 (1998). In short, our efforts to reduce population growth have been largely ineffective.
Nothing captures this failure better than a simple comparison. In 1971, erstwhile East Pakistan had a population greater than its western wing. Today, Bangladesh’s population is a full 30 million less than Pakistan’s.
While we wait for district-level results to gain a better idea of how demographic dynamics have changed these past 19 years, the numbers we currently have raise a few points worth commenting on.
Firstly, the sheer size of the population, and its purported age structure — with up to 60pc under 30 years old — has strong implications for our development prospects. Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, but with only the 40th biggest economy. While some progress has been made in eradicating absolute poverty over the last two decades, ensuring a better standard of living through stable, mobility-generating jobs for young people remains largely elusive.
The sheer size of the population and its purported age structure has strong implications for our development prospects.
This has been known to policymakers and the state elite for a while now, but having hard census data lays out the scale of the task ahead. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that the stability of the country, from a security and conflict perspective, is tied to how well this burgeoning mass of young people is incorporated into a beneficial state-society compact.
Secondly, the urbanisation rate appears to have tapered off compared to the previous intercensal (1981-1998) period. Population growth rate in towns and cities between 1981 and 1998 was 3.53pc on average per annum. Since 1998, it’s fallen to 2.7pc, while the rural population growth rate has remained roughly the same these past 36 years. The slowdown of urban population growth could be because of several factors: the natural rate of growth ie more births tends to fall at higher levels of economic growth and urbanisation. Smaller households gradually become the norm in urban areas in Pakistan as families fragment, living costs go up, and childcare responsibility gets fixed on one member instead of the extended family, thus disincentivising more children. Therefore the bulk of the increase registered in urban areas is on the basis of domestic rural-to-urban migration.
Another, far likelier reason, however, is the very definition of urbanisation in Pakistan. After the 1998 census results were published in full, researcher Reza Ali analysed that the egregiously flawed definition used to differentiate rural from urban underestimated urbanisation in Pakistan by a full 10pc. That would mean that the urban proportion of the total population in 1998 was not 32pc as officially designated, but actually 42pc. By the same token, the actual proportion in 2017 would be far higher than the 36.71pc declared by Friday’s results.
The provincial breakdown of urban and rural raises similar definitional questions. Sindh’s rural population growth rate over the last 19 years has been quite high (2.36pc), despite all other accounts pointing to a greater growth of the province’s population in urban centres. Islamabad’s urban share has actually fallen because much of the suburban development of the past two decades has been counted as rural, rather than urban. It is mystifying how residents of DHA and Bahria Town Islamabad can be counted as rural compared to the ‘urbanites’ of F-6 or G-10.
These are not just stand-alone statistical concerns, but in fact carry real political implications. Underreporting urbanisation through definitional interventions could be of benefit to particular political actors since it impacts how constituencies are redrawn and apportioned within each province. In particular, Karachi’s size and its demographic weight in the province overall may prove to be an early source of contention once district-wise data is released.
Lastly, and perhaps of direct significance, is that a fall in Punjab’s rural growth rate to a fairly low 1.8pc means that while the province is still a populous behemoth, its overall share in the country’s population has fallen by 3pc to 52.6pc. This fall has been picked up by KP and Balochistan, both of which have seen their shares rise.
Of immediate concern is the implication of this fall on the federal government’s divisible revenue pool and the next NFC award. Based on 2016/17 revenue collection, the percentage drop in population translates roughly into a Rs70 billion loss of transferable revenue for the province. How the province deals with this expected drop in proportion will be of great relevance to the health of Pakistani federalism. Possible damaging outcomes include further delays in setting up a new award or a revision in the formula that reduces the weight of inverse population density and poverty/backwardness to keep the province’s share closer to its current position.
The political impact of the census will be far-reaching and will become clear over the next year. Things to watch out for over this period will include the NFC, the redrawing and urban-rural apportionment of constituencies within provinces, and perhaps even question marks over the fairness of the exercise itself. From a policy and research perspective, however, there is relief at the availability of fresh data after decades-long reliance on loose estimates. For this, one can only thank the Supreme Court of Pakistan for deploying its discretionary powers, which finally ensured that the government fulfilled its constitutional obligation.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2017