THE ongoing seventh population census in Pakistan is extraordinary in many respects. It is the first census which is taking place after the shortest interval (six years) since the last census in 2017. The past censuses starting from the first census in 1951 were held at varying intervals although it is a standard practice to hold them every 10 years. The average inter-census interval vis-à-vis the past six censuses has been about 12 and a half years but the last census in 2017 actually took place after a record interval of 19 years.
Census 2023 also represents a paradigm shift as digital technology and tablets are being used for the first time, instead of conventional pen and paper. This makes it possible to receive results of the count in real time and make timely corrections where warranted. The newfound transparency, as has been recently demonstrated, also acts as a double-edged sword, because a number of objections have been raised about real or perceived inaccuracies in the count, even as the exercise is underway.
Although each population census sets the basis for the allocation of National Assembly seats among the provinces, and subsequently, the national and provincial assembly seats among the districts of each province, as well as the federal territory of Islamabad in the following elections, Census 2023 was specifically commissioned earlier so that it could provide a fresh basis for allocation of assembly seats before holding the next election. This decision to hold a fresh census was taken by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) chaired by then prime minister Imran Khan in April 2021 after serious objections were raised both by the government of Sindh, headed by the PPP, and the MQM, which was then a coalition partner of the federal government. Both the PPP and MQM felt that Sindh’s population had been undercounted in the 2017 census, though the MQM’s concern was more focused on the urban areas of Sindh, including Karachi.
The initial positive impression about Census 2023 being a more organised effort with a significant amount of preparatory work was somewhat tarnished as the count progressed and a number of objections were raised especially about the housing and population figures in Karachi. The initial deadline to complete the census fieldwork was April 1, which proved to be unrealistic as the population count for the entire country by that date was much less than the population counted in 2017, indicating an incomplete count. Since then, the fieldwork completion deadline has been revised six times and the latest scheduled date has been fixed for May 15.
It is imperative that the final count commands the trust of all provinces and cities.
Although, the population count of the entire country as of April 30, the last deadline, has registered an increase of about 22 per cent since April 1, 2023, the percentage increase registered in Karachi Division over the same period is about 51pc, indicating that the earlier undercounting in Karachi was much more pronounced than in other parts of the country. This undercounting was detected by the local population and aggressively articulated by Karachi-focused parties such as the MQM and Jamaat-i-Islami and only then the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the organisation responsible for the census, was made to repeatedly extend the fieldwork deadline. Each time the deadline was extended, the population showed a significant increase not only in Karachi but overall as well, which shows that the count was not meticulously undertaken. The latest count will be known by May 15 when the current deadline for fieldwork expires but the confidence in the count has suffered due to the continuous change in numbers.
The census is an expensive exercise. Rs34 billion were budgeted for the current seventh census in an environment of great financial difficulty, when the federal government had expressed its inability to allocate even a lesser amount of Rs21bn for the elections of the Punjab and KP assemblies. It is, therefore, imperative that the final count of the ongoing census commands the trust of all provinces and cities so that it serves as a credible basis for the allocation of the assembly seats before the next election.
Since the deadline to complete the population census has already slipped by a month and a half, it has created apprehensions about the timely completion of the subsequent fresh delimitation of the assembly constituencies by the Election Commission of Pakistan. It was made clear by the ECP that it would require a minimum of four months to complete the delimitation of constituencies after the final results of the census are notified, following the approval of the CCI. If the new delimitation of constituencies has to take effect before the scheduled date of National Assembly election along with some or all provincial assembly elections, the final census result will need to be notified by May 30 at the latest.
In fact, the ECP had initially demanded that the final census results be made available to them by December 2022 but they later agreed to absorb three more months into their schedule and expressed their willingness to complete the delimitation of constituencies in time if the final census results were provided to them by March 31, 2023. It is not clear whether the ECP schedule can absorb a further delay of two months but it is crucial that the advantage of an expensive and early census should be available to the country in the form of the delimitation of constituencies which has the trust of all political parties.
Fresh delimitation of constituencies based on the latest census is another reason why the provincial assemblies’ election in Punjab and KP should be so scheduled that the benefit of the fresh census and revised delimitation of constituencies should accrue to these assemblies as well. It will not only be extremely odd but may also lead to technical complications if the election of two provincial assemblies is held on the basis of the outdated census and constituency boundaries while the National Assembly and two other provincial assembly elections take place on the basis of fresh delimitation.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2023