WITH the seventh census wrapping up yesterday, officials have released the provisional population figures tallied thus far. According to the numbers, Pakistan is home to 246.5m people, an increase of nearly 40m souls as compared to the 2017 head count. Expectedly, Punjab leads as the most populous federating unit, while Balochistan is the least populated province. The exercise had been extended five times in order to facilitate the general elections — whenever they are held. According to the census commissioner, there will be no more extensions. However, as the final numbers emerge, the million-dollar question arises: will the fresh head count be accepted by the country’s multiple stakeholders? Or will it be dogged by controversy much as the sixth census was, which resulted in the seventh exercise being held before time?
Despite the fact that this was supposed to be the nation’s first digital census, indicating minimal chances of fraud and manipulation, controversy was never far from the head count. From government partners, such as the PPP and MQM, to opposition parties, such as Jamaat-i-Islami, to nationalist parties in Sindh, there was widespread criticism of the exercise by political actors, despite the administration’s efforts to assuage concerns. For example, both the MQM and Jamaat used the alleged undercounting of Karachi to protest against the lack of transparency in the census. As per provisional figures, the megacity’s population stands at 18.6m, a growth of only 2.55m since the 2017 census. Certainly, if the heavy migration towards Sindh’s capital is anything to go by, the current figure is debatable. At the other end, the JI has argued the ‘actual’ population of Karachi should be around 35m. However, only independent demographers, with no political agendas or vested interests, can comment on the authenticity of the national head count. We cannot continue to have flawed censuses and conduct the exercise prematurely because the previous count raised doubts. Perhaps the best solution at this point is to accept the numbers as they stand, and work to improve the process so that there are minimal complaints about the eighth census a decade down the line. Continuous bickering about figures, and endless extensions will delay elections further, and affect the planning process. Therefore, all political forces need to make their reservations clear, accept the count and work towards improving the enumeration process.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2023