A cauldron of a count

‘Census’ as a term is of Latin origin, from ‘censere’ which means to assess, originating in early 17th century denoting a poll tax which was applied to the registration of citizens and property in ancient Rome.

Conducting a census once in a decade is a global norm, and it’s a widely followed trend for a simple reason that it helps ruling dispensations across the world keep a tab on, inter alia, all facets of demographic changes within their territories, which in turn affects their policy-making, resource allocation among other facets of administration. For the purpose of this article, we shall focus entirely on neighbouring state Pakistan’s – 6th National Census, one being conducted after a gap of almost 2 decades.

Pakistan had last conducted a census in the year 1998, when it had recorded its population to be 134.7 million, with the population having exploded since its first census in 1951 when it had 33.8 million inhabitants. In 2015, the World Bank estimated Pakistan’s population to be 188.9 million citizens, making its world’s sixth-most populous country already. Also, this, remember is an estimate and the absolute numbers might be even higher, given the country is also home to a massive number of refugees, both documented and undocumented, including the largest Afghan refugee community in the world which has historically settled in the south-east Asian nation (given various events and the chaos that ensued – the Soviet invasion in 1979, then the Taliban’s excesses in the 1990s, and, finally, the 2001 US-led invasion of the country in 2001).

Given the weak government structure, inadequate state capacity and perennially volatile security situation, as just like most other spheres of public administration the Pakistani army shall be a part of this exercise as well. Starting March 15th, up to 200,000 military personnel have been deployed to assist around 100,000 civilian counters to complete the 70-day data-gathering campaign, armed with 55,000 forms will be deployed to record the demographic changes that have occurred since 1998.

As per norms, Pakistan should have had conducted a census almost a decade back at least, and if not then sometime in the subsequent years given the nature and need for the exercise. For example, during 1950–2011, Pakistan’s urban population expanded over sevenfold, while the total population increased by over fourfold. But much of it is estimates and proper documenting and analysis is thus needed. There are reasons, mostly political so as to why this wasn’t done.

The census comes at a particularly precarious time, coming just a year before the national parliamentary elections, complimented by the political uncertainty arising out of the Pakistani HC’s verdict on the Panama Papers scandal involving the Prime Minister and his closest associates to be delivered almost contemporarily.

What troubles the ruling classes about the exercise is how it has profound and far-reaching implications. Parliamentary seat allocations, Constituency delimitations, federal funding, and political boundaries will all be altered by the census, unless the rampant changes are not recorded with accuracy. Inflating the size of a population in a given province will lead to more funding, more seats in Parliament and the availability of more jobs. The various ethnic groups have every reason to bribe officials into recording higher numbers. Political heavyweight state of Punjab, for example, may lose its political power as its population has not increased at the same rate as the rest of the country. The country’s other provinces, such as Baluchistan, fear the census. A nationalist party has suggested the arrival of Pashtuns in the province will make the ethnic Balochs a minority. The number of religious minority groups will also be recorded in the Muslim-majority country.

Conducting a census, in its own right is a mammoth challenge for the strife-raven republic of Pakistan. At the time of publication of this article, the exercise would have been almost half-way through, and it’s already had its due share of controversies and hiccups, with suicide bombers having attacked Pakistani soldiers escorting census workers on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore on April 5th, killing at least five army personnel and two civilians. However, the more interesting and challenging part for the powers that be would be to actually make the findings of the exercise public. It’ll be a huge gambit and politically ominous for many, and if the fears of certain sections were to come true and the results transform conjectures into conviction, one can only vouch for even more instability in what is already a fragile state devoid of any capacity.


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