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Tuesday April 16, 2024

Census delay

By Editorial Board
November 09, 2022

It is unfortunate that the government of Pakistan has once again delayed the census that is so needed to be completed before the next general elections. A delay of around six months in the holding of the seventh national housing and population census is inadvisable. Though the government has decided to seek the approval of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) for a fresh schedule, this appears to be a mere formality now. If the government gets through this delay, the final results of the census will not be available to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) before May 2023. Per the original schedule, the ECP was expecting to receive the results of the next census in December this year. That would have given the ECP ample time to prepare for new delimitations of constituencies throughout the country in the first half of 2023. The new starting point that is being proposed will make the ECP hard-pressed for time. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics is likely to send a fresh summary to the CCI and PM Office with a fresh timeline for the seventh census; it is expected to get a nod in the affirmative.

Since the next census will be a digital one, there may be all sorts of unforeseen hitches in the administration of the compiling and counting exercises. It is worth recalling that the earlier summary was the result of an agreement with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). It stipulated that the census would commence on Oct 15 this year and would be completed by mid-November. Essentially it is the economic situation that is apparently responsible for the delay in the opening of the letter of credit. Then NADRA was also unable to furnish the required number of tablets needed for the digital exercise. As many as over 0.126 million tablets will be required for the census if it has to move forward on a digital pattern. There is also a need for complete and up-to-date software solutions for the census. All this requires huge financial resources that the government is now constrained to provide.

Keeping in view the economic conditions in the country especially in the aftermath of the floods, it is perhaps inadvisable to go for a digital exercise at this moment. Probably the good old manual method is more affordable but that opens up its own set of issues, especially an outcome that may be seen as unreliable like the 2017 census. The digital exercise will also require near-perfect training sessions to develop the capacity of the staff in a cascade model which uses master trainers to train the trainers. As the required staff strength is going to be over a hundred thousand that will need timely delivery of the tablets without which the training cannot begin. All this needs careful consideration. The general elections are due in the second half of 2023 and the country cannot afford any delay in that as is evident from the current political situation in the country. The government needs to consider all aspects – economic, technical, and political – before reaching a final decision. The CCI has great responsibility to be circumspect and not entirely rule out the possibility of a manual census provided all mechanisms for an impartial and timely exercise are in place. The importance of the census exists beyond politics. This census is going to be the blueprint for public policy over the next decade and as such it is important that as many details as possible are collected. The population breakdowns in the census are used as a baseline for sampling in every other government survey. Funds for everything, from welfare payments to health and education, will be apportioned and allocated on the basis of the census. The effectiveness of such programmes are dependent on knowing exactly where money needs to be spent.