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Sunday July 14, 2024

Game-changing digital census to resolve political disputes

By Jan Achakzai
February 27, 2023

The federal government is taking a major step towards accurate development and planning of the country by conducting a digital census. This census will provide comprehensive information about the types of population units in the country, reflecting the geographical distribution of families, groups and regions across the country.

The digital census is set to revolutionise the way political polemics are settled. By utilising cutting-edge technology, this census will provide an unprecedented level of accuracy and detail. This will allow for more informed decisions to be made.

Enumerators will collect information from citizens on their households, such as age, number of rooms in their house, employment, religion, language etc. Eight countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia and Pakistan, are conducting digital censuses.

Previously, enumerators would manually collect information using paper forms dispatched to households, which would then be filled out by the family head and collected by staff. However, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics is now undertaking huge task of using modern technology, such as tablets, laptops and smart apps to directly transfer data from households to the database. A total of Rs50 billion will be spent on this exercise which will begin from March 1 to April 1, 2023.

At present, there are 185,509 census blocks in 628 tehsils across the country. To work in the box, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has recruited 126,000 teachers and the same number of people who will be in charge of collecting information from households, have been equipped with smart tablets. They would be using a comprehensive “IT Solution” that Nadra has suggested for the first time in Pakistan. Android-based smart devices with a house listing and enumeration application that is synced with GPS and GIS will be used to carry out the activity.

The last census was held in 2017, and according to statistics from that year, the population of Punjab alone was around 110 million. Estimates suggest that Pakistan is now the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population, and this is alarming. According to a UN report, by 2050, most of the population increase in Asia will be in Pakistan and the Philippines.

Data from households will be verified and a central control room will be set up, similar to the NCOC established during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if connectivity issues cause sites to go offline in a given area, it is becoming increasingly common for census data to be collected manually which would have taken months and years using traditional methods.

This is going to be the seventh census counting the number of people in the country. In Pakistan, resources are allocated based on population numbers, leading to allegations of past governments manipulating data. This process has been particularly controversial in Karachi, Balochistan and the former FATA regions.

The urban and rural divide in Sindh has also been a major source of contention due to population numbers, as well as the use of foreign or alien populations (asylum-seekers) as a political tool.

Recently, MQMP expressed concern, though, regarding the Census Commissioner’s deployment of personnel from the Sindh government. The MQMP leader Farooq Sattar stated, “The Sindh government’s appointment of enumerators initially set off alarm bells. Then, on the first day, the web portal intended for people to register themselves went down, seriously casting doubt on its efficacy. Yet, there are a few issues that call for the Census Commissioner’s explanation because they are not clear-cut, he said.

He drew the attention of “powerful circles” implicitly to intervene, as the MQMP did not have faith in PPP. However, the PPP refutes such allegations and points to its success in LGs elections.

The digital census in Balochistan will be closely monitored, as political debates stemming from past census results have been rife. Baloch nationalist groups have raised concerns about the registration of Afghan refugees in the past, while Pashtun ethnic groups have accused the Baloch community’s dominance over government machinery due to manipulation of the census data.

The actual seats of the national and provincial assemblies will be determined by the potential constituency delineations based on the outcomes of the planned digital census. The proportion of provinces, cities and regions may change. Because of this, the ECP is required by the Constitution to carry out a census and then hold elections based on new constituencies. It has already taken on this duty by committing to carry out the digital census.

The computerised census is now less susceptible to manipulation. So, the political parties and governments won’t be able to seriously contest the results. The political majority-minority status of various groups and their stakes in Pakistan’s power corridors will change as a result of this census.

However, the census will continue to be a controversial issue for some groups due to its implications for both financial distribution and allocation of seats in the national assembly and provincial assemblies.

India addressed this debate by passing a constitutional amendment that froze the financial share of the federating units, based on the results of the 1971 census, giving the populace only 17.5 percent of the weight in the 14th NFC Award. This has shifted the census debate from a contentious political arena to a tool for planning.

In contrast, Pakistan allocated 82 percent of the horizontal share for the seventh national finance award based on the population of the provinces. Prior to this, the province awards component was distributed entirely on population.

Politics will continue to have an impact on the census unless the criteria for incentives are altered. Pakistan must transition to a reliable digital census in the future.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a Balochistan politician and a former media and strategic communications advisor to GOB. He tweets @jan_Achakzai