The census 2017 results have been released and disturbingly the rate of population growth has been estimated to be a lot higher than what was projected notably 2.4 percent per annum instead of the projected 1.8 percent. This difference is massive and reflects the obvious: allocations for social sector development, as well as on population control, have been appallingly inadequate to meet the requirements of a population rising at a much faster level than predicted. Use of data available with Nadra as an alternative was rejected by Asif Bajwa, Chief Commissioner Census, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) while briefing the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Finance earlier this year, as he pointed out that according to Pakistan’s Economic Survey, total population of the country was 193 million whereas Nadra estimated it at 133 million or 60 million people were missing from Nadra’s data as they did not bother to get either an ID card or passport. Actual population according to the census 2017, is even higher – at 207.77 million.
The true impact of this growth rate on the social sectors is apparent when one realizes that the census exercise was delayed by 19 years; and was carried out amidst calls for delays and/or refinement of data collection particularly by political parties in Sindh and Balochistan. The PPP-led Sindh government feared that the federal government-controlled PBS may be ‘influenced’ into releasing data that favoured Punjab (inclusive of data manipulation to favour the ruling party in the forthcoming elections – both in terms of resource allocation and the subsequent delimitation exercise to be carried out by the Election Commission of Pakistan). And suggested that raw data (or disaggregated data) for the provinces collected by teams of officials from each province together with army officials be released – a request that would have enabled provinces to determine the veracity of the data released by PBS. Given the extent of data manipulation during the Dar-led Finance Ministry to reflect favourable macroeconomic indicators rather than ground realities which, in turn, disabled the Ministry of Finance from taking informed decisions in a timely manner, lent much credence to the Sindh government’s recommendation. The MQM-P fearing that the population growth rate would not favour its current resource and job allocation from the federal pool also resisted the census. And all parties in Balochistan excepting Achakzai’s Pakhtunkhwa Milli Party opposed the census fearing the inclusion of 3 million Afghan nationals as Baloch.
Although the present census data may not impact on the general elections scheduled to be held within the next 10 months due to shortage of time but would definitely impact on subsequent elections. Political parties are naturally focused on the Delimitation of Constituencies Act 1974 with Section 2 defining population “in accordance with the last preceding census officially published”; and Section 10 stipulating that “All constituencies for general seats shall, as far as practicable, be delimited having regard to the distribution of population in geographically compact areas, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience and other cognate factors to ensure homogeneity in the creation of constituencies”. Thus, the census 2017 results would increase the number of seats in national and provincial assemblies, change the demarcation of constituencies with implications on political parties; and PPP’s concerns with the census data have understandably resurfaced.
In this scenario, it is critical for the federal government to deal with at least two rather obvious idiosyncrasies in the PBS data which are significant: (i) Karachi’s population is recorded at 16.5 million which challenges previous data of in-migration and fertility rates and in addition shows a fertility rate lower than the national average; and (ii) Punjab’s population has declined sharply, Sindh’s has risen marginally and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s has risen by a dramatic 1.3 percent and Balochistan by 0.9 percent. This data again challenges alternate data of out-migration in KPK and Afghan refugees being counted as Balochis. It is therefore imperative that the government releases the unaggregated raw data in the public domain for demographers and other experts to analyse and examine aggregation of data as done by the government.
To conclude, the PML-N government has broken all past records of data manipulation during its over four years in power and has done so in a manner that simply defies belief. One would have thought that it would desist from the temptation to do so in the census because of its far-reaching implications on the economy or to have done so with more finesse to make it believable. That it did neither show a level of arrogance that defies all logic.