Demographics, defined as the statistical study of populations, measures size, structure, and distribution of populations, spatial or temporal changes in them in response to ethnicity, birth, migration, ageing and death.
These dynamic changes, when identified, enable the government to formulate targeted socio-economic policies. However, there is a political element to changes in population reflected by the fact that constituencies can be sub-divided and/or lost based on a higher population growth rate of one ethnic group over another in one district relative to another, a source of considerable angst for incumbent candidates within the constituency. It is extremely unfortunate that in Pakistan, population census has been held hostage time and again to politics which accounts for no census being held for the past 17 years.
A strong rumour doing the rounds in the federal capital these days is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to take the four chief ministers into confidence during the scheduled Council of Common Interest (CCI) meeting on 29th February over a delay in the census exercise that was planned for 15th March 2017; it is unclear whether a new date would even be proposed for this critical exercise. Reports confirming the delay refer to a meeting where Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa, appointed by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar after he retired as chief statistician of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), told Dar during a recent meeting that the army would not be able to provide 350,000 troops requested to carry out the census in one go throughout the country due to the ongoing operation in tribal areas.
This prompted criticism of why the government wanted to carry out the exercise in one day instead of in a phased manner.
Analysts have repeatedly pointed out that in Pakistan political parties have routinely exerted pressure to stay a census exercise in return for support for the Centre and/or challenged the credibility of the census results if carried out by enumerators hired by the PBS which comes under the administrative control of the Ministry of Finance. In this context, it is relevant to note that in spite of repeated requests by the independent media and local economists, PBS has not engaged in any meaningful attempt to resolve serious data discrepancies for the past three and a half years. Deep-seated concerns are being raised as to whether the reported census delay may be a reflection of Punjab’s concerns over the decline in its population relative to total population – a concern that is strongly echoed in provinces where the PML-N is not in government premised on the fact that with the exception of Dr Ishrat Husain, all other Census council members are from Punjab.
Given that the distribution of resources continues to be largely based on population under the National Finance Commission award any relative increase/decrease in a province’s population as a percentage of the total population would have a major impact on resources released by the federal government. Job quotas under the Federal Public Service Commission depend on the ethnic numbers and that too is yet another reason for dominant groups to insist on no census exercise.
The large number of migrants to Sindh from other provinces, particularly southern Punjab, for economic reasons as well as the large number of undocumented Afghans in Balochistan account for the resistance by these two provincial governments to hold a census. Former Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik as well as the incumbent Nawab Sanaullah Zehri have expressed serious concerns that most of the over million Afghans with CNICs could well marginalize the Baloch in their home province.
Business Recorder has been repeatedly warning the government that it needs to formulate policies based on actual demographics for their effective formulation and subsequent implementation. Last but not least, the census cost estimates are said to have soared to over Rs 30 billion. The government must therefore not lose sight of the fact that each of census innovations is done to reduce escalating cost and to preserve official statistical integrity.