EARLIER this week, the Council of Common Interests approved the controversial National Population and Housing Census, 2017, with a majority vote after over three years. Sindh stuck to its stance, voting against the census results. The MQM, the ruling party’s coalition partner from urban Sindh, had already rejected the results during a cabinet meeting when the government decided to put the matter before the CCI. In view of the large-scale reservations on the census results, the CCI also decided to organise a new census for fresh delimitations of national and provincial constituencies before the next elections in 2023. The Sindh government and MQM are not alone in their concerns. Opposition parties in KP had expressed their doubts about the data collected from erstwhile Fata. Similarly, some have misgivings about the authenticity and quality of the census data related to religious minorities and transgender persons. The census directly affects the number and size of the national, provincial and local constituencies a province or a district gets, as well as the allocation of financial resources to the provinces under the NFC award. For some, its significance lies in its relationship with the allotment of quota to different regions or segments of the population in federal and provincial jobs. Little wonder then that the entire exercise has become politicised over time as provincial, ethnic, religious, economic and other fissures deepen in society. Hence, the last census took place 19 years after the previous one, which was organised after a lapse of 17 years in 1998 in violation of the Constitution that mandates it be held every 10 years.

The government says it plans to take all stakeholders on board before starting the next census process later this year to avoid controversies. But will that help? We know that the status quo favours some and is harmful to others. It will be naïve to expect a wider political consensus over census results without technology. The present method of collecting population and housing data is unreliable, inefficient, expensive, time-consuming and prone to errors. Many countries now use smartphones and tablets for conducting a census because it helps efficient and reliable collection and processing of disintegrated data. Error-free population data is also important for better future economic planning, tax resource mobilisation and efficient allocation of financial resources for socioeconomic development. It is, therefore, advisable for the government to deploy technology for the new census to ensure transparent and dependable population and housing data collection.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021

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