At long last the much delayed national census seems poised to see the light of day. It took a suo motu notice and order by the Supreme Court to compel the government to carry out the decennial exercise that should have been conducted as a matter of course.
Now the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has met and decided to go ahead with the census starting from March 15, 2017.
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, the CCI, which brings together the federal government and provincial leaderships, decided that the housing count and population census would be carried out in one go. The census will be conducted in two phases, each simultaneously in all the provinces and in close co-ordination with the respective provincial governments.
The CCI discussed the operational difficulties of the exercise and set up a committee comprising the secretary of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and the four chief secretaries to address all such issues. The house listing will begin March 15, 2017 and be completed in 30 days. This will be followed by the census operation that will also be completed in 30 days. A total of 207,000 personnel will be involved, including 42,000 from the armed forces, to provide security throughout the exercise. In the light of the huge task, international experts on enumeration supported the two-phase idea.
A census is the primary long term planning tool. While the house listing exercise provides data on the actual number of houses, the population enumeration provides the comparison between dwellings and people, throwing up in relief the housing deficit. Needless to say, development planning is reduced to guesswork in the absence of current, accurate data on the size of the population, demographic spread, etc.
These figures feed into a judicious sharing of national resources by different provinces and regions. What should be a routine task every 10 years according to the constitution has a chequered history in our past. The first census was conducted in 1951 and the next according to schedule in 1961. The 1971 census was delayed by a year because of the war but the 1981 one was conducted on time. The 1991 census was delayed by seven years and only conducted in 1998, reportedly for political reasons.
From there on the exercise was derailed. The due date for the next census was 2008 but did not materialise. An abortive exercise in 2010 had its results rubbished for unreliability. In violation of the constitution and in the absence of knowledge about the exact number of citizens, the estimate of the population in 2015 was 191.17 million. The house listing and population count is likely to reveal the landscape of how the country has changed.
Not only has the population grown enormously since the 1998 census’ population figure of 130 million (plus another five million in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan), the last 18 years have seen rapid urbanisation (the highest rate in South Asia), which meant the exponential expansion of cities, rural-urban migration, and enormous changes in the patterns of life and work.
Planning in the dark has probably created undiscovered pools of deprivation and gaps in delivery, exacerbating economic and social problems and conflict. In the case of the upcoming 2017 census, however bad a light it throws on the inability of our leaders to carry out this constitutionally binding task out of fear and uncertainty surrounding the implications of the number and distribution of the population for political representation and the distribution of national resources, the only polite way to view the ‘breakthrough’ is to fall back on the old adage: better late than never.