Wednesday January 19, 2022

Headcount: don’t do it!

March 02, 2016

In Pakistan, it seems that there is a pervasive affliction of mistrust (distrust, if you like) of each other, in families and among friends, of almost every private (secular and religious) and public (judicial, civil and military) institution, and of the political elite above all.

Sadly, much of it is well-founded in the real life experience of most people. Perversely mendacity, sycophancy and hypocrisy are rewarded, and honesty forthrightness and integrity penalised. Naturally people adjust their behaviour accordingly to survive and maybe even flourish.

This brings us to the population census. The last one was done in 1998, the results of which have remained highly contested because of lack of trust. I will argue that Pakistan should not waste many days of human labour (soldiers, enumerators, and those who would be counted) and billions of rupees. These resources can be used for other, more useful purposes. I have at least three good arguments against the headcount exercise. And if done well, the headcount might expose the extent to which past demographic estimates have been wrong.

First, in an already divided society, the headcount will most likely create more division and conflict, perhaps igniting fresh demands for dividing the existing provinces into new ones. Second, it will substantially reduce the share of the majority province in the national financial resources and federal-level jobs and positions. Third, it will destabilise the political order because of new delimitation of electoral boundaries (constituencies).

In Sindh, there will be contest on the headcount in rural and urban areas; it may act as a spark to the simmering conflict along ethnic lines (‘old’ versus ‘new’ Sindhis). These numbers will affect the quota system for jobs in the public sector and the distribution of provincial expenditure and financial resources given to the local governments. It is well known that, in the preceding two decades, the demographic structure of this province has changed in favour of the urban areas, thanks to the movement of people within the province (from villages to towns and cities) and from outside the province to towns and cities.

In Balochistan, there is the perennial problem of perceived imbalance between the Baloch and Pashtun populations. In this context, we should not underestimate the role of Afghan refugees having settled permanently in the province. The Baloch have deep grievances against the policies of successive federal and provincial governments on account of their share in resources, jobs, etc. No wonder the Baloch and Pakhtun populations remain vigilant about their relative share in the provincial population, resources, etc.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hindko-speaking population, particularly in the Hazara division, has been concerned about its share in the provincial financial resources, public service jobs, etc. The Afghan settlers have added to their anxiety about remaining in KP. The new headcount could work as a catalyst for separation.

In Punjab, the Seraiki-speaking population, concentrated in the southern and south-western parts of the province, feels marginalised and has been demanding separation for some time. The headcount would most probably make their case stronger, given the relative changes in the demography of the more urbanised parts of Punjab compared to the more rural south.

Turning to the second proposition, since provincial shares in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award are determined largely on the basis of population, and the estimated share of Punjab in the total population has remained unchanged for decades, the new headcount will show how wrong this estimate has been and by how much the majority province stands to lose.

By the way, population is also an important factor for provincial shares (implicit quotas) in the federal public service, etc. In other words, the majority province would lose some of its long-held clout in national affairs. Wouldn’t this be a good enough reason to cast doubt on the census outcome?

Finally, following the headcount, it would be necessary to delimit the electoral boundaries afresh. Generally, the existing constituency structure for the national and provincial assemblies tends to favour the incumbents. In many rural and some urban areas, the incumbents get elected routinely because of their vote banks based on family (dynasty), tribe or clan, caste or biradari, and patron-client relationships. The new delimitation will probably favour urban populations and mightily disturb the traditional vote banks in rural areas. In addition, the inter-regional demographic changes within each province would create new tensions between these regions. I The record of the Election Commission has also not been altogether worthy of confidence for its neutrality and efficiency. But then who can be trusted with this complex and risky task?

At the end the question is: what if, as has happened before and is most likely to happen again, the census results are disputed – and my intuition says that they will be – by almost all groups for one reason or another? Wouldn’t the new headcount be a very expensive and in the end a futile exercise? That soldiers are being asked to supervise the census operation is a sad commentary on the civil and judicial administration of the state.

The use of Rangers to maintain order and the opaque military courts to try alleged criminals (‘terrorists’) clearly reflects a lack of trust in the police service and the judiciary.

What’s next? The sixty-four million rupee question remains: how long will the sickness of systemic mistrust last? It has fostered cynicism and a sense of hopelessness.

The writer teaches at Simon Fraser University. Email: