The census will keep the political stakeholders on the edge given how it determines the eventual electoral playing field
Pakistan kicked off its biggest ever population census on March 15. Even though the gigantic exercise comes almost two decades after the last headcount, the very fact that it is taking place is a symbolic manifestation of a welcome return to business.
Insecurity and political wrangling had stalled previous attempts to follow the constitutionally mandatory call to make the headcount every 10 years.
The determination to get a fact sheet in hand this time is unmistakable with the army responding favourably to help get the job done, credibly and satisfactorily. Despite being in the thick of an ongoing military operation ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ to eliminate residual/latent threat of terrorism - to consolidate gains of earlier such operations - the military has deployed 200,000 soldiers to assist 119,000 trained civilian workforce across Pakistan for the census.
Originally scheduled for March last year, but which was postponed because of the unavailability of military personnel engaged in an intense anti-terror operation, the data-gathering exercise that finally began on March 15 this year will end on May 25. It will be conducted in two phases; from March 15 to April 15, and then, after a 10-day interval from April 26 to May 25. The interval is on account of shifting necessary equipment and transportation of staff from Phase-1 areas to Phase-II areas.
Taking into account the hard yards in the lead-up to the census, special security measures have been put in place. The Rs18.5bn ($178mn) project has been conceived in a way that one soldier is deployed with each enumerator, to begin with.
The Army Air Defence Command in Rawalpindi - a garrison city that also serves as the military’s headquarters - would be the central command station for the entire process. Historically, the military’s involvement is seen as an insurance against any wrongdoing at the base civilian level - a point to which one will return in a while.
For good measure, Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (public relations wing of the army), sitting alongside Marriyum Aurangzeb, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, warned at a joint presser on the eve of the census, that anyone who wilfully lies or makes a false statement to the census team would be liable to a punishment of six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs50,000 ($477).
Military personnel accompanying the enumerators will be directly linked with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) - acknowledged as one of the finest database facilities in the world - and will be able to verify the particulars.
A comprehensive awareness campaign had preceded the exercise to educate the masses about the significance and procedures of the census. To this end, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is being used for demographic profiling.
Provisional summary results of the census will be available by July-end.
This brings us to the sticking points, and which largely explain why the latest census has been a long time coming, leaving aside the security aspect. The exercise is not only about the basic math of a headcount, but also factors in ethnic and faith groups across the four provinces and other federating units. Once done, the figures will determine shares of federal revenue and subsidies, and more importantly, the seat configuration in the National Assembly - lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature - and civil services quotas.
The fact is that there has been a massive population surge since the last count in 1998 that put the numbers at approximately 135mn. The World Bank estimated the count to be 188.9 million in 2015 and present guesstimates reckon it to be breaching the 200mn mark.
Whatever the latest tally, it is pregnant with profound changes. For one, we’ll get to put a finger on how young is the population; currently, Pakistan is reckoned to have a youth bulge with more than 60% of its population in the under 30 bracket.
However, what the census will do is to keep the political stakeholders awake at night, more than just figuratively speaking! Electoral seats in the parliament, after all, are assigned on the basis of the particular area’s density of population, and with rural migration a constant in the national fabric, the political elite fears the loss of influence and numbers, of course.
In the past, accusations about census manipulation have contributed greatly to queering the electoral pitch. Whether grounded in reality or being peddled for political expediency, it has led to continuously stonewalling a national obligation. The broad narrative is that certain regions are over-represented in parliament and others, under-represented. Ironically, when there should be a greater resolve to put that at rest by fervently following a just census, many parties and groups would rather look the other way!
But this is not to say, there aren’t any genuine issues that need a redressal. For instance, the decision not to appoint female staff - security concerns notwithstanding - could be a hindrance in the prim and proper count of women in certain areas because of religious and cultural sensitivities. Then, there is cynicism surrounding the headcount for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province being done in Islamabad - for lack of equipment there - leading some ethnic parties to raise the red rag.
Another contentious point is the fate of the federally administered tribal areas, where the count may be compromised given the exodus of hundreds of thousands of residents on account of anti-terror operations in recent years.
On the flip side, there is concern that Afghan refugees, who have lived for decades in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces would end up in the count unfairly as residents, especially since a critical mass is suspected to have attained fake citizenship documents over time!
However, the army which will conduct a parallel count, plans to deal with this onerous task by counting the Afghan refugees separately, to ensure the count is as grounded as possible.
*The writer is Community Editor.
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