Head­count: don't do it!

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Mah­mood Hasan Khan

IN Pak­istan, it seems that there is a per­va­sive af­flic­tion of mis­trust (dis­trust, if you like) of each other, in fam­i­lies and among friends, of al­most ev­ery pri­vate (sec­u­lar and religious) and pub­lic (ju­di­cial, civil and mil­i­tary) in­sti­tu­tion, and of the political elite above all.

Sadly, much of it is well-founded in the real life ex­pe­ri­ence of most peo­ple. Per­versely men­dac­ity, syco­phancy and hypocrisy are re­warded, and hon­esty forthright­ness and in­tegrity pe­nalised. Nat­u­rally peo­ple ad­just their be­hav­iour ac­cord­ingly to sur­vive and maybe even flour­ish.

This brings us to the pop­u­la­tion census. The last one was done in 1998, the re­sults of which have re­mained highly con­tested be­cause of lack of trust. I will ar­gue that Pak­istan should not waste many days of hu­man labour (sol­diers, enu­mer­a­tors, and those who would be counted) and bil­lions of ru­pees. Th­ese re­sources can be used for other, more use­ful pur­poses. I have at least three good ar­gu­ments against the head­count ex­er­cise. And if done well, the head­count might ex­pose the ex­tent to which past de­mo­graphic es­ti­mates have been wrong.

First, in an al­ready di­vided so­ci­ety, the head­count will most likely cre­ate more divi­sion and con­flict, per­haps ig­nit­ing fresh de­mands for di­vid­ing the ex­ist­ing provinces into new ones. Se­cond, it will sub­stan­tially re­duce the share of the ma­jor­ity prov­ince in the na­tional fi­nan­cial re­sources and fed­eral-level jobs and po­si­tions. Third, it will desta­bilise the political or­der be­cause of new de­lim­i­ta­tion of elec­toral bound­aries (con­stituen­cies).

In Sindh, there will be con­test on the head­count in ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas; it may act as a spark to the sim­mer­ing con­flict along eth­nic lines ('old' ver­sus 'new' Sind­his). Th­ese num­bers will af­fect the quota sys­tem for jobs in the pub­lic sec­tor and the dis­tri­bu­tion of pro­vin­cial ex­pen­di­ture and fi­nan­cial re­sources given to the lo­cal gov­ern­ments. It is well known that, in the pre­ced­ing two decades, the de­mo­graphic struc­ture of this prov­ince has changed in favour of the ur­ban ar­eas, thanks to the move­ment of peo­ple within the prov­ince (from vil­lages to towns and cities) and from out­side the prov­ince to towns and cities. In Balochis­tan, there is the peren­nial prob­lem of per­ceived im­bal­ance be­tween the Baloch and Pash­tun pop­u­la­tions. In this con­text, we should not un­der­es­ti­mate the role of Afghan refugees hav­ing set­tled per­ma­nently in the prov­ince. The Baloch have deep griev­ances against the poli­cies of suc­ces­sive fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments on ac­count of their share in re­sources, jobs, etc. No won­der the Baloch and Pakhtun pop­u­la­tions re­main vig­i­lant about their rel- ative share in the pro­vin­cial pop­u­la­tion, re­sources, etc.

In Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hind­kos­peak­ing pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the Hazara divi­sion, has been con­cerned about its share in the pro­vin­cial fi­nan­cial re­sources, pub­lic ser­vice jobs, etc. The Afghan set­tlers have added to their anx­i­ety about re­main­ing in KP. The new head­count could work as a cat­a­lyst for sep­a­ra­tion.

In Pun­jab, the Seraiki-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion, con­cen­trated in the south­ern and south-western parts of the prov­ince, feels marginalised and has been de­mand­ing sep­a­ra­tion for some time. The head­count would most prob­a­bly make their case stronger, given the rel­a­tive changes in the de­mog­ra­phy of the more ur­banised parts of Pun­jab com­pared to the more ru­ral south.

Turn­ing to the se­cond propo­si­tion, since pro­vin­cial shares in the Na­tional Fi­nance Com­mis­sion (NFC) award are de­ter­mined largely on the ba­sis of pop­ula- tion, and the es­ti­mated share of Pun­jab in the to­tal pop­u­la­tion has re­mained un­changed for decades, the new head­count will show how wrong this es­ti­mate has been and by how much the ma­jor­ity prov­ince stands to lose. By the way, pop­u­la­tion is also an im­por­tant fac­tor for pro­vin­cial shares (im­plicit quo­tas) in the fed­eral pub­lic ser­vice, etc. In other words, the ma­jor­ity prov­ince would lose some of its long-held clout in na­tional affairs. Wouldn't this be a good enough rea­son to cast doubt on the census out­come?

Fi­nally, fol­low­ing the head­count, it would be nec­es­sary to de­limit the elec­toral bound­aries afresh. Gen­er­ally, the ex­ist­ing con­stituency struc­ture for the na­tional and pro­vin­cial as­sem­blies tends to favour the in­cum­bents. In many ru­ral and some ur­ban ar­eas, the in­cum­bents get elected rou­tinely be­cause of their vote banks based on fam­ily (dy­nasty), tribe or clan, caste or bi­radari, and pa­tron-client re­la­tion­ships. The new de­lim­i­ta­tion will prob­a­bly favour ur­ban pop­u­la­tions and might­ily dis­turb the tra­di­tional vote banks in ru­ral ar­eas. In ad­di­tion, the in­ter-re­gional de­mo­graphic changes within each prov­ince would cre­ate new ten­sions be­tween th­ese re­gions. I The record of the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion has also not been al­to­gether wor­thy of con­fi­dence for its neu­tral­ity and ef­fi­ciency. But then who can be trusted with this com­plex and risky task? At the end the ques­tion is: what if, as has hap­pened be­fore and is most likely to hap­pen again, the census re­sults are dis­puted - and my in­tu­ition says that they will be - by al­most all groups for one rea­son or an­other? Wouldn't the new head­count be a very ex­pen­sive and in the end a fu­tile ex­er­cise? That sol­diers are be­ing asked to su­per­vise the census op­er­a­tion is a sad com­men­tary on the civil and ju­di­cial ad­min­is­tra­tion of the state.

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