A census without a consensus

January 29, 2023

Arrangements are under way for a mid-term census.

A census without a consensus


reaking with the ten-year norm, arrangements are currently being made for a mid-term census in the country. The last census was taken in 2017. However, its results were discarded for most practical purposes.

A census is primarily a planning tool.It generates vital data to set the contours of national planning. However, in Pakistan, it frequently goes beyond addressing planning needs and becomes more of a political tug-of-war. The constitution has made the census a benchmark for determining the share of the federating units in political representation and financial allocation. These factors prompt provincial leaders to jostle for a larger share in the headcount.

For Sindh and Balochistan, the census is an even more politically sensitive matter. Some of the native populations in both provinces fear being reduced to a numerical minority due to an incessant influx of people from other countries and provinces. Sindh witnessed a demographic shift at the time of Partition. The then-premier of Sindh, Ayoub Khuhro, lost his government for trying to resistabsorption of migrants from India beyond a threshold. The massive demographic shift created a fault line between urban and rural populations in Sindh. The province subsequently received several waves of influx as the provincial capital, Karachi, being an economic magnet, attracted migrants in large numbers. The Afghanistan war induced a deluge of immigrants. Later, the War on Terror triggered a number of military operations against outlawed fighters in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. These operations also prompted a massive displacement of the local population. An unaccounted number of them made their way to urban Sindh. This changed the balance of demographic fulcrum against the local populace.

Sharing of financial resourcesis yet another incentive tied to the census. The Seventh National Finance Award allocated 82 percent of the horizontal share proportionate to the population of the provinces. Before that, the provincial component of the Award was distributed 100 percent % based on population.

Seats in the National Assembly are also shared according to the population of each province. These two incentives make the census a thorny issue. India addressed this controversy on census through a constitutional amendment by freezing the financial share of the federating units based on the census data of 1971. In the 14th NFC Award, India assigned only 17.5 percent weightto population. Attaching political and financial share has shifted the debate on census from a planning tool to an inflammatory political crucible.

Over two million houses were damaged and over 12 million people were affected. An unknown number of flood victims have yet to return to their homes.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, an ally of the federal government, was infuriated over the census results of 2017 that counted the population of Karachi as 14.9 million. The estranged ally of the government demanded a fresh census, and the PPP-led Sindh government backed the demand. The MQM claims that Karachi’s population is twice the last official count. Some Sindhi nationalist parties and civil society are perturbed that an out-of-turn census is being held to ‘artificially’ swell the urban population and potentially reduce the share of Sindhi-speaking people in the province. The Council of Common Interest in its 49th meeting held in January 2022 decided to conduct the 7th census by using digital technology. The Census Organisation under the Federal Bureau of Statistics has already procured the equipment and started training census staff on digital devices.

Asdata collection for the new census in Sindh approached, a new controversy has arisen among Sindhi nationalist parties and the civil society. Many view the census with suspicion. They reason that a mid-term census is meant only to appease a particular group. Concerns are being raised about what will happen if the result of the census is not accepted by another group or if the population of Karachi is not found to be significantly different from the earlier results. Additionally, there are concerns about the use of digital platforms for the census, as these platforms can create opportunities for data tampering and are controlled by algorithms that are considered by some as vulnerable to manipulation without leaving evidence. The apprehensions are similar to the objections raised to the introduction of electronic voting machines. Given these concerns, it is unclear how the digital census will be accepted as free from these flaws, as it will be the first census conducted through digital data collection and analysis mechanisms.

An ordinary field survey requires pre-testing of data tools. Not conducting a small-scale pilot on a digital census to check the functionality and reliability of the system is raising concerns. If such an exercise was undertaken, it is not public knowledge. It is routine for large and complex data collection and analysis to have technical bugs and errors. Identifying and fixing these bugs is an essential part of the exercise. A similar exercise of collecting poverty data under the National Socio-Economic Registry (NESR) had ended in failure a few years ago, with the quality of data from leading NGOs deemed unfit and payments to theorganisations stopped. Given the capacity gap and political sensitivity of the census, the quality of data collection will be a tightrope to walk.

A major concern is the massive displacement caused by flooding in more than two dozen districts in rural areas of Sindh. According to data from the provincial government, over two million houses were damaged and over 12 million people were affected. An unknown number of flood victims have yet to returnto their homes. Large areas of land are still submerged and inaccessible. This situation has made it difficult for the government and humanitarian organisations to provide adequate relief to the population. There is also a risk of undercounting people in inaccessible areas, particularly homeless families. Taking a census in areas where damage assessment has not been properly done due to the extensive displacement and limited access will be impractical.

The country is already grappling with political instability and economic turmoil. It may have been prudent to avoid stoking another controversy at this stage.

The author is a development sector professional and can be reached at nmemon2004@yahoo.com

A census without a consensus