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Monday May 27, 2024

Punjab may lose eight NA seats under new census: report

By Zebunnisa Burki
May 03, 2023
A Pakistan Bureau of Statistics official uses a digital device to collect information from a resident during door-to-door data collection at the first-ever digital national census on March 28, 2023. — ONLINE
A Pakistan Bureau of Statistics official uses a digital device to collect information from a resident during door-to-door data collection at the first-ever digital national census on March 28, 2023. — ONLINE

KARACHI: Punjab may lose eight seats in the National Assembly given the provisional results of the digital population census, says a report by senior journalist Tahir Mehdi for the digital news organization Lok Sujag. Punjab’s loss will mainly be Balochistan’s gain, writes Mehdi.

Per Tahir Mehdi’s report, “Punjab’s population is not more than half that of Pakistan’s anymore. According to the provisional results of the digital population census made public by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the province now accounts for exactly half of the country’s population.” Interestingly, Punjab’s population percentage has been “declining consistently in successive censuses...The share of province in [the] country’s population dropped from 55.63 per cent in 1998 to 52.96 per cent in 2017....[and] now stands at 49.96 per cent”.

With Punjab’s share of 141 seats in the National Assembly possibly due to come down to 133, Tahir Mehdi (who also heads Lok Sujag) talks to The News and explains that it is not that population in Punjab is not growing but that the “rate of [population] growth in Punjab is slow. National Assembly seats are allocated according to population so if Punjab’s population is increasing at a slower rate then its share in the total [seats] will be lower.” About any controversy arising from these results, Tahir Mehdi says that “censuses have been problematic in Pakistan. Even now it won’t be without controversy but this time the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) is claiming that they are geotagging, and vetting CNICs etc -- so hopefully this will be better.”

Per Mehdi’s report, “Sindh may not be the biggest ‘beneficiary’ of Punjab’s loss as the province is likely to gain only one seat in the National Assembly.... It will be Balochistan that will gain most of the seats lost by Punjab. The population of the province has shown a whooping growth of 62.9 per cent since 2017.”

Talking to The News, he explains further: “In Balochistan, the growth rate has been phenomenal. Punjab’s population from 2017 to 2023 has fallen by 6.0 per cent whereas Balochistan’s population from 2017 to 2023 has increased by nearly 63 per cent. The reasons for that could be that either in 2017 the Baloch were undercounted and now they have been counted right. Or in this 2023 census they have been overcounted.” He feels though that “even if you somewhat believe the PBS’s claims [of how they have conducted the census] there are fewer chances of the latter. so this means simply that last time Balochistan was undercounted. It has also been seen that areas that are seen as dangerous or conflict-ridden or even remote or difficult to access have not been reached in the past because those doing the count used to opt to stay home instead of reaching out to these places.”

However, for PILDAT President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the census will retain its controversy. He tells The News that: “The possible change in the number of allocated National Assembly seats to each province in the light of the 2023 census is not yet confirmed and may change before the final result is approved by the Council of Common Interests and then notified. My sense is that census results have become controversial and this apparent change in number of seats appears to be difficult to rationalize given that the census is conducted after just five years instead of the usual 10. My guess is that this number, if correct, will lead to serious controversy and -- coupled with the complaints about the Karachi census -- has the potential to destroy the credibility of the census.” How will political parties see this development? Mehdi feels that “Different political interests will look at this differently. It could be that those in Punjab will feel this is an incorrect count while those in Balochistan could well say they are still undercounted.” He adds that “the significance of this count for political parties will depend on the timing of the general election. If the election is early then this census will not the basis for the delimitation but if the census is notified officially then for the ECP it is constitutionally mandatory to conduct delimitation on the basis of the new census -- by mid-June” Even then, says Mehdi, “the ECP needs four months before the election for the delimitation exercise. Since it is as yet unclear when the census will be notified and whether delimitation will be done on its basis, things are still up in the air.”

As far as political reaction goes, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is of the opinion that “So far political parties -- except for Karachi-centric parties -- have been engrossed in the issue of the provincial election date and its impact on the NA election, the controversy relating to Supreme Court judges etc. But as the census results become known and the possible effect on seat allocation is realized, the controversy will gain momentum.” He advises the government to “immediately work on management of this foreseeable crisis -- as if we had any dearth of crises.”

Since the news of the loss in Punjab’s share and the gain in Balochistan’s share could lead to even less clarity regarding the census, was this an expected result? Mehdi says “The Balochistan result one is a bit of a surprise” but “it was expected that due to the difference in population growth rate, seats in Punjab could be affected. Punjab even after the 2017 census had lost seats [seven in total]. Even within Punjab, we may see a shift -- once the district wise details of the census become clear -- from central to southern Punjab.”

One of the issues with the census exercise and the confusion regarding its results could be communication strategy, says Mehboob: “The PBS needs to communicate professionally and confidently. The change in statistics of Karachi population with every extension has contributed to erosion of trust in the census figures. There is still time to salvage this expensive exercise. The government should focus on this before it is too late.” Summarizing the Tahir Mehdi report, journalist Amber Shamsi tweets: “The controversy over the census keeps surfacing in Karachi and Sindh, but the loss is Punjab’s, first in 2017 and the second time in 2023. Political implication: Punjab eventually loses its [significance] in national politics.