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Counting on census

The best plans and policies of the government fail to deliver when we don’t have our numbers right

Counting on census

Stitching someone’s clothes without knowing the age, height, weight and measurements sounds insane. However, I know of a story of a tailor in Pakistan, who has been “successfully” doing that for the last many years. While the clothes may never fit his client, resulting in wastage of material, money and labour, yet the tailor insists that he has been performing his duty with dedication and right intentions. That is why he is getting rewarded for his “job”.

The tailor in this story is the government of Pakistan (successive governments) and we, the people of Pakistan, are the client. Clothes are different plans, strategies and policies. Our age, height, weight and measurements are the outcome of population census which is overdue since 2008. Without knowing the number, age, geographical distribution; ethnic, religious, and gender composition; educational level; income level, employment level; and different other key indicators of its population, successive governments of Pakistan have been planning and executing all sort of policies, plans and strategies ranging from economic, social, political, foreign, environmental, and defense etc.

What is the output of these plans? The same as the output of the tailor of my story. Not to mention that the government(s) is getting rewarded for its plans and policies without census — a job that it is doing with whole dedication and right intentions.

The result of above mentioned approach is that Pakistan has turned into a place where people rely too much in guestimates — where they follow sentiments than evidences and where whims of the decision makers are more important than well-informed decisions. Highlighting the importance of census in such a situation is a far cry.

The last population census which was originally planned for 1991 was delayed by seven years and since then the country is being run on guestimates. The best plans and policies fail to deliver, partially, when we don’t have our numbers right.

For instance, Household Integrated Expenditure Survey (HIES) 2010-11 computed poverty in Pakistan to be 35 per cent based on the estimate that its population was 130 million. The same year Economic Survey of Pakistan (state of economy report) cited Pakistan’s population as 177 million. Forty seven million, here or there, may be nothing among friends. However, when we are talking of human beings, assessing the poverty level in a country, and planning to give relief to them, than every single individual matters. With the type of data which over or underestimate population of Pakistan by 47 million, one should not wonder why our performance on “millennium development goals” was one of the worst in the region.

The announcement of holding fresh census during the March 2015 meeting of Council of Common Interests (CCI) brought a ray of hope for many people. One was optimistic that not only one would get to know the basic socio-economic and demographic figures for our country, but the data gathered would serve as a baseline for “sustainable development goals”. Alas, the CCI which is meant to meet every three months could never meet for the next eleven months to ensure the implementation of its decisions. Finally, the CCI did meet last week to defer the population census and tasked the concerned to consult the armed forces of Pakistan for the required human resource and propose a new date for the census.

Before discussing whether non-availability of armed forces is the only hindrance in conducting fresh census, let us see how an updated population census would affect the current scheme of things. Besides developmental plans and policies discussed earlier, the rule of thumb is bigger the population bigger the share.

-It would affect the provincial shares in federal revenues, 82 per cent of which are weighted according to population.

-It would affect the seat share of each province in the National Assembly, which hinges on population data.

-It would affect the quota for recruitment to federal posts, which is worked out on the basis of population ratios as given by the census.

-It would affect the provincial share of target subsidies provided by federal government.

-It would also reflect the number of intra-country migrants in largest metropolitan Karachi, which, according to different analysts, would increase the share of Sindh in Pakistan’s population.

-It would also reflect accurate ethnic composition of provinces; Punjabi and Seraiki in Punjab, Sindhi and Urdu speaking in Sindh, Baloch and Pashtuns in Balochistan, and Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns in KP. An altered ethnic composition would result in “bigger the population, bigger the share”.

-It would also reflect the accurate number of non-Muslims in Pakistan. This would have direct implications on the number of seats reserved for non-Muslims in the parliament and provincial legislative assemblies.

The above-mentioned effects would not automatically result into a positive change. However, the census would at least help in diagnosing who merits what on the basis of their share in population. This diagnosis would hit the interests of status quo lovers. They are the major stumbling block in holding census in Pakistan.

The matter is further complicated because of law and order and general security situation in Pakistan. The support of Pakistan Army is required to reach inaccessible areas and to ensure security of enumerators during the census exercise. However, that is not the only reason why army’s presence is important during census. Army’s presence is also required to assure the ruling parties of Sindh and KP that the PML-N-led federal government would not fudge the census data. Here it is pertinent to mention that the census (population and housing) is a federal subject as listed at Sl. NO. 38 of Federal Legislation list, Part-1, Fourth Schedule, Constitution of Pakistan.

Support from the armed forces is not available due to the ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azab. Balochistan wants a census without immigrants and naturalised Afghans who have acquired Pakistani citizenship. Sindh wants an immediate census under the Army’s supervision. KP also wants to get the immigrants and “fake citizens” excluded from census. The result is yet another deferment until a consensus is reached with the army and the provinces on board.

Pakistan Bureau of Statistics is neither mandated nor equipped to check the originality of citizenship of Pakistani nationals. NADRA is the agency to cancel fake CNICs. Instead of wasting more time in arguments, the census should be carried out at the earliest. The problem of providing security to enumerators may be solved by combining the 80,700 available soldiers with the reserves and retired soldiers (under the command of Pakistan Army).

To overcome the fear of data fudging, handheld GPRS gadgets for recording geographical coordinates and online data tabulation should be used. This is possible and can be agreed upon in the next CCI meeting listed for March 25.

Politicising this exercise would result in failure to achieve any of the development goals.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

abid suleri
The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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