Cen­sus At Last

Southasia - - COMMENT - Syed Jawaid Iqbal

Though the of­fi­cial word on the fate of pop­u­la­tion cen­sus is fi­nally pos­i­tive, it has been such a tricky ride an­nounce­ment af­ter an­nounce­ment and dead­line af­ter dead­line that it is hard to ac­tu­ally be­lieve that it will re­ally be ex­e­cuted this time round. The best bet, how­ever, is to hope for the best. On its part, the Supreme Court of Pak­istan de­serves def­i­nite com­men­da­tion for mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to save the coun­try from a rud­der­less leadership by re­ject­ing rea­sons for de­lay in con­duct­ing the pop­u­la­tion cen­sus and or­der­ing the gov­ern­ment to an­nounce a de­fin­i­tive time­frame for hold­ing the much-needed head­count. While tak­ing suo motu no­tice on de­lay in cen­sus, Chief Jus­tice An­war Za­heer Ja­mali was quoted as say­ing, “We have beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated the green book [Con­sti­tu­tion] in cup­boards only to be for­got­ten. Our only anx­i­ety is that the con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tions should be im­ple­mented in let­ter and spirit at all costs.” Fol­low­ing the de­ci­sion, Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif presided over a meet­ing of the Coun­cil of Com­mon In­ter­ests which agreed to be­gin Pak­istan's sixth pop­u­la­tion cen­sus on March 15, 2017.

If his­tory is any­thing to take cue from, fears of un­cer­tainty on this cru­cial count are not mis­placed. Af­ter the first cen­sus in 1951, there should have been six held by now and, in line with the Con­sti­tu­tion, a sev­enth would have been due in the next few years. In­stead, we have just had four – 1961, 1972, 1981 and 1998 – and, rhetoric aside, there was never a re­al­is­tic chance of the var­i­ous dead­lines be­ing met that were an­nounced in the last ten or so years. Fi­nan­cial con­straints and lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues have been of­ten cited for the de­lay, but it is not too hard to de­tect the ba­sic rea­son: lack of po­lit­i­cal will to hold cen­sus, which is noth­ing but raw ma­te­rial for all the key so­cial, eco­nomic and de­mo­graphic in­di­ca­tors. These, in turn, form the ba­sis to work out for­mu­lae for dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources among the prov­inces, de­lim­i­ta­tion of elec­toral con­stituen­cies, job quo­tas, water ap­por­tion­ment and such other sen­si­tive is­sues. With­out cen­sus data, so­cio-eco­nomic planning is just guess­work. And if one were to point any one rea­son be­hind the mess in Pak­istan, it would be poor planning be­cause the head­count re­quired for pre­par­ing a cor­rect cost-ef­fec­tive fore­cast is not avail­able. The last cen­sus in Pak­istan was con­ducted in 1998 and dur­ing the last 18 years the mas­sive mi­gra­tion to the ma­jor cities has given birth to new de­mo­graphic re­al­i­ties across the coun­try. The un­ac­counted im­mi­grants have wors­ened the sit­u­a­tion fur­ther.

The gov­ern­ment now must act on a war foot­ing for mak­ing ar­range­ments for hold­ing the cen­sus with­out any fur­ther de­lay and as­sign the task to a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee com­pris­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all par­ties in par­lia­ment to avoid un­nec­es­sary con­fu­sion. The com­mit­tee should be headed by a fed­eral min­is­ter and pre­pare a list of re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing col­lect­ing cost es­ti­mates from the Cen­sus Bureau, meet with rel­e­vant staff to make plans, re­view and up­date Cen­sus Bound­ary and An­nex­a­tion Sur­vey maps, and re­turn to Cen­sus Bureau with its in­put. This should be fol­lowed with re­cruit­ment and sub­se­quent train­ing to enu­mer­a­tors, crew lead­ers and clerks. It is also im­por­tant that this cen­sus use the state-of-theart tech­nol­ogy for enu­mer­a­tion and data tab­u­la­tion. This will elim­i­nate the er­rors when data is digi­tised later. Aerial pho­tog­ra­phy and GPS units should be used to de­mar­cate Cen­sus ge­og­ra­phy. The gov­ern­ment should con­sider col­lab­o­rat­ing with dig­i­tal giants like Google, which has ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in col­lect­ing such data. In fact, such tasks could be out­sourced to such com­pa­nies so that data is digi­tised and archived us­ing the global best prac­tices pa­ram­e­ters. It may even be cost-ef­fec­tive.

Other than lo­gis­tics, there are a cou­ple of tech­ni­cal­i­ties that the au­thor­i­ties need to be clear about be­fore un­der­tak­ing the ex­er­cise. It is a bit sur­pris­ing that af­ter all the bad blood that was cre­ated in 1998, there has been no pro­ce­du­ral change planned for enu­mer­a­tion pur­poses. The anom­alies had led to se­ri­ous protests in Ur­ban Sindh, which plays host to a large im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion. In the wake of un­rest in North­ern Ar­eas and the re­sul­tant south­ward move­ment, the is­sue this time round is bound to be even more cru­cial. Be­sides, the def­i­ni­tion of ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas is also up in the air be­cause of the change the lo­cal gov­er­nance sys­tem has un­der­gone in the in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod. The de­lay, though un­con­sti­tu­tional, could still have had a pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tion if it could have been used to sort out such thorny is­sues. It is ad­vis­able to pre­empt po­lit­i­cal back­lash af­ter­wards and ev­ery­thing should be done to en­sure that much. Af­ter all, it is not like ask­ing for the moon, or is it?

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