The government is reluctant to set a fresh deadline for a long overdue population census, lending credence to a widespread belief that the crucial national headcount has been put off for an indefinite time.
Last week, the parliamentary secretary for finance, Rana Afzal, told lawmakers in the National Assembly that the government was waiting for the army’s nod because a large number of troops were required for the massive exercise.
The government had done all arrangements to conduct the census but it was postponed because troops were not available, he said, adding that approximately 240,000 personnel were required. “The census will be held soon,” he said but did not say ‘how soon’.
Finance Minister Ishaq Dar took the same line in the Senate. He told senators in a written reply that preparations on the civilian side were almost complete. But since the army had other pressing engagements, the number of troops required to ensure credibility as well as security of the census exercise was not available.
“This issue was discussed in a meeting of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) on February 29 which decided that the census scheduled in March 2016 may be postponed, and a fresh decision for holding the census should be taken later in consultation with the provinces and the armed forces,” he said.
Opposition parties have rejected a government claim that the provinces had been taken on board before deferring the census. They have been demanding that the government set a new deadline.
Last week, State Minister for Interior Balighur Rehman, while responding to a query by ANP Senator Ilyas Bilour, said the census would be held before the incumbent PML-N government completed its five-year constitutional tenure.
PPP Senator Mukhtiar Ahmed Dhamrah said that when his party raised fears about a possible delay, the government insisted all arrangements had been in place to hold the census. “We want to know why the government does not convince all stakeholders despite its tall claims,” he added.
In reply, Rehman said the census was delayed due to a ‘pragmatic problem’. “The CCI has taken this decision [to postpone the census] because of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and now only the CCI will set a new census deadline.”
Meanwhile, PPP lawmaker Nafisa Shah is expected to move a resolution in the lower house of parliament on Thursday, urging the government to hold the census.
The previous census took place in 1998. And Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa said last week that there was no constitutional requirement to hold the census after 10 years. Nonetheless, he said it was the best international practice to conduct a census after a decade for better social and economic planning.
Asked why she planned to table the resolution, Nafisa said: “Most of us think we really cannot come up with development plans unless we know where we are headed.”
“A country of 200 million cannot move forward unless we know how many we are. Numbers do matter, in terms of allocation of resources, in terms of development plans, your strategy, you really need to know how many you are,” she added.
She acknowledged the underlying reason for the delay, but said that if there was a political will, the census could be held. “If we can fight militancy and terrorism, we can surely count ourselves,” she added.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2016.