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March 14, 2017

So it begins


March 14, 2017

From tomorrow, the long overdue process of counting the people in the country will begin, a full 19 years after the last such exercise. That the state is finally – and belatedly – fulfilling its constitutional obligation to hold a census every 10 years in itself makes this a historic occasion. The census will be carried out in two phases over two months, will cost nearly Rs20 billion and require the use of over 300,000 civilian staff and military personnel. Now that the census forms have been released, there are some worries about the information the government intends to collect. Many of the country’s regional languages, some of which are already endangered, have not been included in the form. Only nine languages are listed and those who primarily communicate in other languages will both feel excluded and receive no state support for preserving their mother tongues. Afghan refugees will be counted separately and, given the current climate of hostility towards them, they are fearful that giving this information to the government may lead to their being rounded up and deported. Additionally, all those who cannot prove their citizenship will be counted as aliens, which could disenfranchise the millions of Pakistanis who do not have a CNIC. There are fears that a census that does not accurately reflect the make-up of the population will end up being more harmful than beneficial. Without knowing how many people there are in the country, where their live, their ethnicity, gender and other key focal issues, the task of planning for the future becomes an impossible one. Representation too in our federation is determined by numbers, and there is already conjecture that this head count could change seats allocated to provinces in the National Assembly.

There are some reasons to be hopeful about the census. For the first time, on the orders of the courts, respondents will be allowed to identify as transgender persons. The government is also planning on counting the number of people who suffer from disabilities, and even important metrics like the number of toilets in a household. But the census is only the start. How the state uses the information it collects is equally important. Ideally, the census form would have collected more information on important matters like infant mortality and the prevalence of disease but researchers from both the government and academia can at least use the census as a baseline to carry out further research. This census is going to be used for at least the next 10 years for every public policy decision. It is critical the process be conducted transparently and with as little controversy as possible. Raising awareness among people of its urgent need and their responsibility to cooperate is required. Almost undoubtedly, attempts will be made by vested groups to manipulate the process and this can best be countered by drawing on people for their support so we can draft a reliable map of our population and use it in drawing up plans for the years ahead.


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