Counting apprehensions

Concerns regarding the conduct of the census in various areas of the Khyber Pakthunkhwa province have caused a stir

Counting  apprehensions


The seventh population census is under way in the country. A May 15 deadline has been set for the completion of the work, with consolidated outcomes expected to be notified on May 30. The last census was conducted six years ago, in 2017. In April 2021, when the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government deliberated on the census, one of the main reasons was serious objections from Sindh, especially by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P). It was decided in the end to hold a fresh countrywide census. Right from the start, some political parties have had doubts about this census. Many parties believed that the PTI chief and former prime minister Imran Khan was interested in the census mainly to increase the share of the youth vote, believing the youth to be supportive of the PTI. A ‘digital’ census is being held this time, in which online tablets are being used for the enumeration. Some political parties have said that they had a bad experience with digital processes in the last general elections. Some people believe that digital data is easier to manipulate.

Earlier, teams of enumerators appointed for the census used to go door to door with pen and paper and collect data through personal interviews. This time, after the conclusion of the first phase of the census, serious concerns were raised in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After some of the census data was reported in the media, some nationalist parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially the Awami National Party, raised objections.

According to the 2017 census, the population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was 30 million and the population of the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was estimated at 5 million. Thus, after the merger of FATA, according to the 2017 census, the total population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had become thirty-five million. When the preliminary data of the 2023 census came out, the total population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was estimated to be 39 million. This is a much smaller increase than early results have indicated in Balochistan.

Several political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have expressed surprise over the initial data.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where polio campaign face difficulties and security problems are rampant, the fairly easy completion of the census itself has attracted questions. Security personnel, it has been pointed out, are being targeted at various places. During a survey, the enumerators needed security. This could hardly be achieved given that the security personnel themselves have been a target.

In the northern areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Upper Dir and Chitral; as well as Waziristan, there is no internet in many places. An online digital census is thus hard to pull off.

“There is also the problem of online registration. In many places in Pakhtunkhwa, census teams have not even visited. How could they have counted the people? The Awami National Party will fight against this injustice. A large number of Pakhtuns are working in other provinces. A large number of families have lived abroad for many years. How is data about these families being obtained. We were not taken into confidence about the monitoring of these teams,” says Awami National Party leader Shagufta Malik.

Many areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have not been cleared of the militant threat and targeted operations continue. Tehsil Datta Khel is one of those areas. It is located in North Waziristan. Although there is an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp for people from this area in Bannu, many families are still in refugee camps in Afghanistan.

An important reservation is that some of the Afghan refugees who have been living here for decades have now established permanent residency. Some more Afghan refugees have also moved to Pakhtunkhwa.

The preliminary figures of the 2023 census concerning the population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (after the merger of former FATA areas) have several gaps. In the war-torn province and in areas where basic electricity and internet facilities are not available everywhere, and where registration of births is not seen as urgent, how have the estimates been made?

“A controversial census can lead to many conflicts. At a time when the country is going through an economic crisis, and when the necessary funds to conduct elections are lacking, a controversial census costing billions of rupees can be a big mistake,” says Maulana Amanullah Haqqani, a former provincial minister, and leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI).

The demarcation of constituencies for all elections is based on latest census data. That explains concerns among political parties regarding the census. The merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have raised objections to seats allotted to their respective districts. Thus, political parties of the province believe that instead of increasing the number of seats in the National Assembly after the merger, the seats for these districts may be reduced in some cases.

This is one of the main issues on which political parties and the civil society in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have expressed concerns with respect to the current census. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has always complained of unfairness in the distribution of federal resources. If concerns regarding alleged negligence in the census are not addressed, it risks creating a challenging situation in the future.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer

Counting apprehensions