Consensual census

Published September 26, 2023
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

IN his foreword to the Census of India, 1941 report, commissioner M.W.M Yeatts likened the nature of the census exercise to “a 10-year convulsion”. He was, of course, referring to the attempts by certain sections to label the census an anthropological exercise, which he thought should be ongoing and not interspersed by 10-year intervals.

Comparing the challenges of the census of 1931 with that of 1941, Yeatts notes that while a boycott marred the former due to the countrywide Civil Disobedience Movement, the latter was tested by the ‘zeal’ of the participants. As the independence movement gained momentum, a division based on religion was evident, hence the ‘zeal’ to be counted and the inclination to question the veracity of the ‘other’s’ numbers. After more than 80 years, the 2023 census in Pakistan has caused similar tensions, only this time it is rural-urban and somewhat ethnic, instead of religious, at least in Sindh.

The fact that we have not had censuses held regularly turns the counting exercise into more of a sudden, national seizure than a 10-year convulsion. The Planning Commission has planned on the basis of guesstimates of population increase for long periods. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has carried out the delimitation of constituencies based on outdated numbers. Districts appear and disappear at the whim of the political party in power, usually under the pretence of bringing the district headquarters closer to a newly created district’s population, but actually for gerrymandering. The anomalies in the average size of constituencies can be gauged from the fact that an average constituency will likely consist of nearly a million people in the upcoming elections. At the same time, some in Balochistan will have less than half the population but be spread over 60,000 square kilometres in some cases.

The current controversy over the census is caused by the delay in holding elections within 90 days of the dissolution of a provincial or national assembly. The Council of Common Interests approved the results of census 2023 on the PDM’s watch, making it incumbent on the ECP to undertake a new delimitation exercise. The ECP has sought time to fulfil this constitutional duty.

Districts appear and disappear at the whim of the party in power.

Some segments, including the PTI and, lately, a fast-forward ‘bloke’ in the PPP, believe it to be a ruse by the PML-N and its supporters in constituencies and cantonments to delay polls. The motive cited is to put some distance between the harsh economic measures initiated by Shehbaz Sharif, PML-N’s nominee to head the PDM government, whose continuation by the caretaker set-up is causing extreme hardship and anger among low-income segments; ie, most of the registered voters who come out on the polling day.

Those adamant about following the 90-day condition are no constitutionalists; they want to capitalise on the public anger against inflation to rout the PDM’s component parties in the next elections and exact revenge on those who ditched the ‘kaptaan’ project to send the PTI government packing. Short of a landslide victory at the polls in the current polarised environment, nothing can save the PTI from the consequences of the May 9 attacks on military property and monuments.

The right royal mess was made messier by the division on the bench of the country’s highest court, the final arbiter on matters of constitutional interpretation. Not a day would pass without the superior judiciary commenting on the election date. The president, a legacy nominee, also wanted the elections to be announced forthwith and often huddled with the law minister to goad, coax, and cajole the ECP to announce the election schedule. The minister heard without liste­ning; the ECP mai­ntained arms-len­g­­th communication through letters.

Returning to the census, the new numbers must inform the delimitation in the run-up to fresh elections, but it must be kept in mind that this exercise only demarcates the geographical limits of the constituencies. In other words, it will redraw the geographical make-up of constituencies — more may now straddle multiple districts, or a particular area in a province may gain or lose the number of constituencies falling within it. It will not change the overall make-up of parliament. Punjab will still determine who rules the roost.

The British Raj conducted seven population censuses between 1871 and 1941, covering the entire country, including the 562 princely states and other autonomous regions. Since independence, Pakistan has held seven; the last, in 2023, was the country’s first digital enumeration. Once India’s seventh census was postponed due to Covid-19 in 2021, it decided to hold it after the 2024 elections, presciently avoiding the delimitation imbroglio we face.

The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2023

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