Like local government elections, it needed the Supreme Court’s gavel to wring out census schedule from a reluctant federal government. Delayed by almost a decade, the census became almost a forlorn hope after an aborted household count in 2010-11. Finally, sensing the rising temperature in the courtroom, the government announced to organise the next census in March 2017. The Council of Common Interest (CCI), in its meeting held in December 2016, chaired by the prime minister, formally took the decision.
Census, normally considered a mandatory decennial exercise, had been frequently postponed under one or the other pretext. After the 1981 census, the following census was conducted in 1998 and the next one is expected in March 2017.
Census provides basis for determining the contours of national and provincial planning in various spheres of the state affairs. The most important ones include distribution of financial resources among various federating and administrative units, political representation and development planning. Additionally, census data provides cardinal data set to analyse trends of demographic changes, state of human development in various parts of the country and across various segments of society. This information is necessary to define contours of public policy and development planning of the country.
Latching the NFC award and representation in Parliament with census, makes it a thorny issue in a highly polarised political ambience of the country. 82 per cent of the financial award is pegged with population that provokes provinces to jostle for a rightful headcount. India deflated the controversy on census through a constitutional amendment by freezing the financial share of the federating units based on the census data of 1971. In 14th NFC Award, India assigned only 17.5 per cent weightage to population and 50 per cent weightage was assigned to fiscal capacity in terms of income distance. The indicator was explained as “distance of actual per capita income of a state from the state with the highest per capita income as a measure of fiscal capacity.
An incessant influx of illegal immigrants and in-migration from other parts of the country have stoked controversy and concerns particularly in Sindh and Balochistan that had been favourite destinations for immigrants and migrants due to their copious resources and employment opportunities. Disaffected native population in both provinces had been clamouring against a lurking threat of being demeaned to a numerical minority in their own homeland.
The two provinces have endured a massive influx of legal and illegal immigrants over the past decades and the demographic imbalance is now reaching a tipping point. Fulcrum of the delicate demographic balance awaits only a slight flip to convert the indigenous communities of Sindh and Balochistan into a minority that entails far reaching perilous political ramifications. Some myopic ethno-political groups driven by appetite for their ethnic supremacy have been exhorting these illegal immigrants to get them registered with a particular ethnic identity to bolster their numbers.
The census held in 1998 revealed that the Baloch constituted approx. 55 per cent of the total population of Balochistan. The province has witnessed heavy incursion of the Afghans since 1980s. Several hundred miles long porous border has made parts of Balochistan a second home for millions of Afghan refugees. Pashtun ethnicity is particularly an advantage for them to get subsumed in the local populace.
The Baloch population has echoed their trepidation that without sifting out the Afghans from the local Pashtun community, they will dwarf the Baloch population. Their anxiety gets multiplied manifold in the wake of the development of the Gwadar Port under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPEC) that can potentially lure a fresh deluge of non-local population. Their apprehensions are compounded by the fact that several parts of the restive province will remain inaccessible to the census staff, rendering the Baloch under-enumerated. Hence, the Baloch face a double whammy of over enumeration of non-locals and under enumeration of their own community.
The situation could lead to an explosive ethnic schism and disharmony in the province. The government of Balochistan is already mulling over a legal framework to protect political, economic and social rights of the indigenous population of Gwadar.
This explains the knee-jerk reaction by a jittery parliamentarian from the treasury benches Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, a key ally of the government from Balochistan. Bizenjo, president of the National Party, categorically demanded postponement of the planned census until all Afghan refugees are repatriated and the Baloch who have left their province due to insurgencies return to their homeland. In a press conference, he did not mince a word and lucidly said that his party had been speaking against the settlement of Afghan refugees in Pakistan since the 1980s and had been demanding they be sent back to their country.
Similarly, Sindh encountered a massive demographic tremor in 1947 due to an unprecedented cross-border migration. According to the census of 1941, native population (Sindhi, Seraiki, Dhatki, Thari-speaking, etc.) constituted 3.9 million of the total 4.5million people. In other words, over 86 per cent population of the province spoke native languages.
The demographic balance went through a sea change within few years. Migration from India unabatedly continued for decades to follow. Karachi emerged as an economic magnet for millions of people from other provinces and foreign countries. Immigrants of all kinds continued to pour into Karachi that drastically altered the demographic configuration. Five decades down the road, census held in 1998 revealed that Sindhi and Seraiki-speaking local population reduced to only 63 per cent of the total population in Sindh. Thus, native population’s share shrank by 23 per cent within five decades.
The enormity of influx can be judged from the fact that since 1941, the native population increased five-fold compared to twenty-fold increase in the non-local population. Hence, every single local person added in Sindh’s native population was outnumbered by four non-locals. This indicates that the inflow of population to Sindh remained relentless throughout the years.
The situation further exacerbated during recent years. Fresh streams of migrants have snuck in the province. In 2011, Afghanistan was invaded by the US and its allies that triggered massive emigration from the country. Two military operations in Swat and North Waziristan also displaced a sizeable population and a large number of migrants, including several extremist fugitives, made their way unchecked into Sindh.
The Sindh government has officially approached the federal government for expulsion of more than 2.5 million illegal immigrants from the province. Some illegal immigrants also enjoy support from an ethnic party that wishes to augment numbers of a particular ethnic group in Sindh. Rural areas have an inherent challenge of having very large yet scarcely populated areas. Enumerators often skip counting in remote and scattered communities inhabited in mountainous areas along the western strip of Sindh, in the sprawled desert on the eastern side of the Indus and dozens of islands in the southern coastal strip. Contrary to that, urban areas have an advantage of convenient outreach due to high population density requiring lesser amount of effort for data collection. Urban groups being better organised easily manipulate the data. This results in unrealistically inflated enumeration in urban pockets. This explains the outlandish results of the household count in 2010-11. For example, Karachi East district registered an astronomical annual average growth of approx. 12 per cent during intercensal period. Similarly several other districts of Sindh depicted average annual growth of around six per cent. Such artificially ballooned headcount left the government with no option but to discard the household data. In brief, the 2010-11 census was a deja vu of 1991 census.
Lack of transparency is a glaring evidence of institutional incapacity of the census managers. Against this backdrop, transparency of the census exercise is pivotal for its credibility. The government has so far failed to evolve a credible mechanism to dispel these concerns. Such circumstances have fueled consternation among native communities of Sindh and Balochistan. This led to a demand for conducting census under the supervision of armed forces to avoid any manipulation of census data.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has also proposed 15 recommendations to make the process transparent and credible. It has advised daily progress reporting by enumerators to the supervisors. The UNFPA has also recommended allowing national and international observers to monitor field operations of census.
Political sensitivity associated with the census merits a diligent and impeccable management of the whole process to avoid any fresh spate of animosity among provinces and federation.