ISLAMABAD: The launch of the country’s first-ever digital census seems to have been put on the back burner amid missed timelines by the government and a delay in approving funds in the last two meetings of the Economic Coordination Comm­ittee (ECC), sources have told Dawn.

In October last year, the previous government gave the go-ahead to the digital census and scheduled its launch for the same month this year, which was then deferred to March next year. But even this revised deadline may not be met, mainly due to delays in the approval of around Rs30 billion budget for the project.

In its Oct 17 meeting, the ECC deferred a summary seeking funds for the 7th population and housing census.

Background discussions and interviews of relevant stakeholders suggest that the next deadline of starting the digital census by February and completing it by the end of March 2023 also seemed unachievable. The previous deadline, which includes the purchase of tablet computers for self-enumeration, also seems to be difficult to meet.

Govt likely beneficiary of delay

The reasons for the delays are both procedural and political. In both cases, the benefit goes to the incumbent government, as a delayed census allows it to complete the remaining tenure until August next year.

Since the coalition government took power in April, the issue of pursuing the digital census turned out to be of the least importance. The first delay was made in the pre-testing of the census, which was due to be completed by June. However, it was started in July and completed by August.

The extensions in deadlines will also have political implications because it was decided in the last meeting of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) of the last government that the next general election would be held as per the new census.

The delays in the digital census and the possibility of holding the next election as per the 2017 census will be a departure from a commitment with MQM-P and PPP, who have serious reservations over the results of the last census when it was approved.

On the procedural side, the digital census was also delayed owing to delays on the part of companies that initially took part in the bidding to buy hardware but remained unsuccessful and left the project after a few weeks.

As a result, to cope with the challenges, the government has asked the Nadra to complete the process and secure device supplies for the project.

The authority has so far purchased 30,000 tablets out of the total 126,000. Another 25,000 are expected to arrive soon, officials in the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and Nadra told Dawn.

Of Nadra’s Rs8bn proposed budget to buy hardware and develop software, it has so far spent Rs2.3bn from its own resources while the government has yet to approve the committed funds. “We are expecting that government will approve the funds for the project, which is of a national interest,” an official said.

The second part of the project relates to the PBS, which will conduct the digital census in the field by training teachers and collecting data digitally. The amount allocated for this exercise is around Rs22bn.

The pre-testing pilot project was launched in July and completed in August in 429 census blocks of 83 tehsils across all the provinces and Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan regions. As many as 500 handheld tablets are being used in the pilot phase of the digital census.

Despite the delay in pre-testing, the outcome of the pilot project was successful, a Nadra official claimed, adding that there was no reason to delay this project.

The deadline for buying all the tablets is December. How­ever, the sources said it would now seem difficult to complete the process, adding that the government might hold the next elections on the 2017 census.

As per the new timelines, data collection will be completed by the end of March. The Election Commission of Pakistan is required by law to take another four to six months to completely delimit constituencies based on new census results.

As per this plan, the delimitation will be completed by July and the current assembly will complete its five-year term in August.

This will also be a challenge for the incumbent government to follow these revised timelines when PTI chief Imran Khan has already launched a long march from Lahore with one agenda: to get the date for the next general election.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2022

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