A census is crucial for representation in legislation but also in planning and policymaking
Imagine ordering a tailor-made outfit without providing the measurements. It sounds absurd, right? How could they possibly create something that fits without knowing certain essential details: age, size and shape? Unfortunately, this is what has been happening in Pakistan for decades due to a lack of an updated census.
A census is crucial as it provides information on how many people reside in a country; where they live; what they do; how they identify themselves; and other significant details such as education and special needs. Without this information, governments are unable to create and implement policies that meet the needs and interests of their citizens. Instead, they rely on guesses, feelings and whims, which often lead to disappointing and ineffective results. Pakistan is all too familiar with this.
Moreover, the census data has significant implications for Pakistan’s political and economic landscape. It determines the allocation of resources, seats in assemblies and distribution of funds between the federal and provincial governments and among the provinces and districts. It also affects the representation and participation of different groups in the electoral process.
In Pakistan, a census is supposed to happen every ten years. But the last one was in 2017, nine years late. And before that, in 1998, seven years late. Unfortunately, the 2017 census was not only late but also controversial.
The 2017 census was marred by controversy as many political parties and groups disputed its accuracy and fairness. Some parties demanded a third-party audit or a redo of the census, while others opposed the use of the census data for drawing electoral boundaries due to fears of data inaccuracies that could impact their interests. For instance, some groups in Sindh alleged that the census authorities intentionally undercounted the population in Karachi, claiming that the city’s actual population was around 30 million, whereas the census reported only 14.9 million. These groups contended that this was done to reduce Sindh’s share of parliamentary seats and resources.
Conversely, some analysts and experts doubted the 2017 census data in regard to the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). They said that despite the war on terror that forced many people to leave their homes, the census showed a higher growth rate for the FATA than expected. They suspected that this was done to enhance FATA’s share of seats and resources.
But that’s not all.
The 2017 census results also left out data on the religious and ethnic diversity of the population, which was last collected in 1998. Some religious minorities, linguistic groups, and human rights activists were unhappy and worried about this omission. They demanded that the census reflect the diversity of the Pakistani society.
The census data has significant implications for Pakistan’s political and economic landscape. It determines the allocation of resources, seats in assemblies and distribution of funds.
In 2018, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment that merged the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The amendment required a fresh delimitation of constituencies based on the latest census data. However, because of the controversies and disputes over the 2017 census data, the amendment also allowed the use of provisional census data for the 2018 general election, with a condition that a third-party audit of 5 percent of census blocks would be conducted within a year.
However, that audit never happened. In 2019, the Supreme Court of Pakistan dismissed a petition that challenged the validity of the 2017 census data and upheld the provisional results as final. The court also directed the federal government to conduct a fresh census for the next general elections, which were to take place in 2023.
In 2020, the Council for Common Interests (CCI), which is a constitutional body comprising the prime minister and the chief ministers of the provinces, approved a proposal to conduct a digital census in 2023. The CCI also decided that the census would use computer tablets and biometric verification. It was also decided to collect data on religion and language to capture Pakistan’s societal diversity.
These developments led to the ongoing census exercise 2023. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) launched the Digital Census Self-Enumeration Portal, which allowed every resident of Pakistan to count themselves in the census by filling out a 40-point questionnaire covering eight important areas. This portal was open from February 20 to March 3. The PBS also deployed enumerators to conduct fieldwork in 156 districts across the country, using computer tablets and biometric verification to collect data from households.
The fieldwork was initially scheduled from March 1 to April 1 but was later extended several times until May 15, due to an ongoing lack of enumeration in some areas, especially in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Balochistan. The PBS will compile and analyse the data collected from both the self-enumeration portal and the fieldwork and will announce the detailed results.
The exercise of the 2023 census is not complete yet. However, controversies have already arisen regarding undercounting of the population in Karachi, Hyderabad and Balochistan. Many feel that technology and data may be manipulated. Many also fear that delayed compilation and approval of census results would delay the delimitation of constituencies for the next general elections. This may become a technical reason to delay the next elections.
The census is crucial for representation in legislation but also in planning and policymaking in any country. Therefore, it should be seen to be fair, transparent and accurate so that all stakeholders accept its results. The 2023 census in Pakistan is an opportunity to address the flaws and controversies of the previous census and to capture the true diversity and complexity of Pakistan’s population. It is also an opportunity for us to customise our policies, initiatives and fund allocations as per the developmental needs of the people. If we are keen on getting a tailor-made outfit, then we should know our measurements right.
The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets at @abidsuleri