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Report on census

September 26, 2017

VIRTUALLY all countries conduct censuses, often at 10-year and a few even at five-year intervals. International practices for undertaking this vital exercise are thus well established. An objective and independent assessment of the Sixth Population and Housing Census in Pakistan to gauge adherence to these tried and tested procedures is thus a valuable metric of credibility and transparency. A report based on observations by a mission from the UNFPA — which contributed $12m and also provided technical support to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics responsible for the census — notes several glaring departures from these best practices. During the enumeration process, six teams comprising international and national observers visited 246 census blocks and observed 537 interviews selected on a random basis in all the provinces.

As with any census, this exercise — for the sake of accuracy that will subsequently impact socioeconomic planning on macro and micro levels and which also has a bearing on the politically fraught issue of resource sharing — should have taken everyone living in the country into account. Judging by the observations in the UNFPA report, Census 2017 has not done so. In order to ensure the people’s full participation, a formal publicity campaign is critical, not only to educate them on the importance of the exercise, but also instil in them the confidence that the data collected will not be used against them in any way. This was not done. Data confidentiality also ensures integrity of the results. Although the report notes the value of army personnel for security purposes, it expresses serious reservations about the collection of data by them, which it says amounted “to a parallel census and is not internationally acceptable”. Moreover, the uniformed officers accompanying the enumerators were verifying the respondents’ CNIC information with Nadra, a measure described by the report as a breach of confidentiality. This also prompts the question why CNICs were being sought at all, when as per PBS’s own assertion, the lack of one did not preclude exclusion from the census — which is as it should be. In any case, the presence of army personnel would have deterred most illegal aliens — accustomed to being rounded up by law enforcement — from participating in the exercise. The UNFPA document also records that residents in refugee villages were not counted, thereby breaching “the principle of universality”. For an exercise held almost one decade after it was due, these are deeply troubling negatives.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017