A people’s census

Published January 1, 2021
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

IS there finally something to celebrate in the government’s decision to release the Census 2017 resu­lts? It would appear so, on the face of it. Revealing the results of the census will open up access to important information that has been suppressed for three years. But after the initial excitement, there is a widespread impression that the decision has been motivated by political compulsions and not because the precious data is required to govern the country especially during the Covid-19 crisis.

There is talk of the next census which must be a people’s census. It should not be mired in political concerns or controlled by the security forces, and it must be conducted as per international principles. There is a worldwide tradition of conducting full census cycles every 10 years, a goal that we have missed by a large margin the last two times. When the next census takes place, it must be with the right intent, full preparation and transparency. Pakistan cannot afford to be an outlier yet again in front of the international community, introducing ulterior motives into what should be an objective counting exercise.

Firstly, the next census must truly include all residing persons whether or not they have CNICs — their full numbers and relevant information that ensures their rights under the Constitution. In order to reach this goal, the government and the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) must first recall clearly the main reason why censuses are held around the world every 10 years. It is not for political reasons, but to distribute services and resources and ensure rights justly based on a correct count of everyone who lives in a territory (in this case, Pakistan), regardless of gender, age, origin, ethnicity, or differently abled status on the basis of where people reside.

Second, the census has to be conducted in a way that increases the people’s trust in the government. This trust has been shaken and must be rebuilt, given how the previous census was viewed as enabling the advancement of political goals rather than the people’s rights and privileges. Communications in the next round will be very critical. Controversy can only be averted when people are convinced that this exercise is for the counted, not the counters. Based on a civilian pact between people and the state, citizens are required to give accurate and truthful information to enumerators, who in turn gather and verify data in total confidentiality.

Third, the army’s role must be clarified. Ostensibly, armed personnel accompanied enumerators in both the last censuses (1998 and 2017) due to security concerns; they were only expected to perform the role of escorts and onlookers, ensuring the enumerators’ security. However, they became directly involved in the data collection, beyond their original mandate, sometimes even recording data. The UN put this on record as a violation of international census protocol in a letter to the government. Thankfully, the much improved security environment will render that level of involvement unnecessary.

When the next headcount takes place, it must be with the right intent, full preparation and transparency.

Fourth, the census must use modern technology, including the recording of information through handheld devices, correlating to GPS coordinates, to ensure transparency of responses. We must stop relying on archaic indelible ink, paper, and sluggish methods of transporting reams of data across the country in order to save months of processing time. The provinces should be able to maintain their own counts rather than rely on a central data base so that databases can be shared to avoid administrative delays.

Finally, can the census data (about to be released) be utilised to convince the gurus tasked with fixing Pakistan’s economic problems of the criticality of demographic trends for planning the economy? In a recent webinar organised by the Population Council at the Population Association of Pakistan’s annual meeting, national experts spoke about the critical need to base economic and development planning on demographic data. The warning research showing that rapid population growth rate has eradicated development gains and practically killed our hopes of becoming an Asian Tiger has been ignored.

The last 20 to 30 years have witnessed a progressive weakening of demographic and health data, thus requiring planning to be based on projections. It may come as a surprise to some that, year after year, the Economic Survey reports only a guesstimate of the population growth rate. The PBS has not collected data on births or deaths through the annually conducted Pakistan Demographic Survey since 2007. And we lack a civilian vital registration system for registering births and deaths. Can we afford to become a reactive nation with no clear planning for the future, leave alone one including population size and growth rates?

The lack of appetite for releasing census data and the discontinuation of important demographic surveys are manifestations of the blissful ignorance surrounding population issues. Population growth rates have progressively come to be viewed as fated or inevitable, rather than being seen as a strong factor in planning. Policies for employment, housing, food security, education, and more recently health were the rationale for a strong stance on population issues at the Planning Commission decades ago. But population analyses to support effective planning have been glaringly missing especially in the absence of population data in the assessment of Covid-19 resp­onses, containment and distribution relief efforts.

Unlike our regional neighbours Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Iran, it is only in Pakistan that neither economists nor politicians have engaged in the debate about population growth and economic development. The important discussion of why we have such sluggish growth compared to other countries in our neighbourhood is absent.

It’s a no-brainer. Others have clearly focused on human development not as a catchphrase but in its true sense. Because the power of a country is not determined by its guns and arsenal, but the caliber of its citizens — their skills, employability and health. It is high time for this nation to seriously address the people’s issues. It can start with a depoliticised census.

The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2021

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