In discussion: the elusive national census

Published: January 23, 2017
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The writer is a graduate of economics and political science from LUMS

The writer is a graduate of economics and political science from LUMS

After a delay of nine years from its expected occurrence, Pakistan finally appears to be set for a national census in March, later this year. While the census is supposed to occur once every ten years, Pakistan has not had one since 1998.

The incumbent government initially agreed to hold the census in March, last year. However, it cited a lack of preparation and delayed it for another year. The government, then, cited the need for the armed forces to be available as the census could not be held without their help. The Supreme Court, however, stressed the importance of holding a census once a decade and has ordered for it to be held in March of 2017 under the supervision of the Council of Common Interests.

The reluctance of political parties and the incumbent government to carry on with conducting the census is somewhat understandable. Those in power, in the legislative assembly, originate their electoral power from constituencies drawn according to outdated demographics and incorrect geographical data based on the 1998 census. If a new census was to take place it would radically redraw the constituency framework across the country. This would naturally threaten the ground power of elected officials as their constituencies change in shape and importance.

The census, however, would contribute much more than just a redrawing of the electoral map. It is impossible for the state to truly understand the changing demographics across the country in the 21st century without empirical investigations into population trends. Given the, undoubtedly large, rise in Pakistan’s population over the last 18 years, there is little doubt that ethnic, religious and linguistic trends amongst regional populations have changed greatly since the last measurement. Without a national census, the state can’t cater to these changes or understand their political, social or economic implications.

It has recently been announced that the transgender community of Pakistan will, for the first time in history, be calculated in the population demographics through the census. This is a gigantic leap forward in strengthening the state’s commitment to treating the transgender community as equal citizens. It is impossible for the state to deliver services or cater to the demands of the community without understanding their geographical scatter and population size.

While the census will have numerous implications all over the country, one of the most fundamental questions that need to be answered is how it will impact the situation in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.

The ethnic divisions within Balochistan are focused primarily on the question of demographic insecurities. Such insecurities and questions of ethnic prioritisation are at their peak given the progress of projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which have further invited people from across the country, and from China, into Gwadar.

Baloch nationalists have claimed that the inflow of Pashtun and Afghan migration into the province has greatly undermined the ‘indigenous Baloch inhabitants’ of the region. The Baloch feel their majority in the province has often been overlooked by the state in its distribution of resources and opportunities. They have clams of being mistreated and underrepresented due to negligence of demographic realities.

The large number of Pashtun migrants who have made their way into Quetta and Balochistan are definitely under-represented in the outdated demographic measures from 1998. Given this recent trend of Pashtun and Afghan migrations into the province, a major shift in the ethnic demography of the province is predicted. The Afghan claim that state reluctance in recognising their existence in Balochistan go a long way in hindering their political representation in the province. Similarly, the Pashtun political parties of Balochistan have long claimed that they are under-represented. They claim that, on ground, they are much larger in number than earlier figures have suggested.

Today, questions remain as to how the state plans on dealing with the large number of Afghan refugees and illegal migrants present in the province. Will the state choose to register these refugees within the census or refuse to acknowledge their existence given the controversial nature of their stay?

Will the state be transparent and honest in its judgment of the Baloch demography or will claims of demographic tempering, which have existed since colonial times, be heard in the province once again?

There is no doubt that the census will have longstanding consequences. It will help us understand the modern changes that have taken place within Pakistani society. The census will go a long way in formulating the trends that define Pakistan in the 21st century. The necessity of it occurring this year is extremely high, and it must not be delayed further under any circumstances.

However, the challenges facing the census extend far beyond its logistical constraints. They pose a threat to our way of understanding particular regions, such as Balochistan, and the possibility of redistributing political power through a shift in the electoral map.

The result will undoubtedly shape the politics and economy of the country for years to come. Hopefully, not more than another decade.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2017.

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