Census At Last
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?